Flapjack Flip-Off Five fittingly flits our way in the fifth month of the new millennium's fifth year and, as always, promises to be as ebullient as bubbling blini batter. Grab on to your griddle as new twists and unexpected thrills spill like faux maple syrup as a quintet of unwitting participants grapple for the Holy Grail of griddlecakes, the Mrs. Beeton Flapjack Flip-Off Trophy (Mrs. Beeton being the cookbook author who in 1909 became the first person to avow in print that pancakes "must be regarded as somewhat beyond the capabilities of average digestive organs.")
Unfortunately owing to a puzzling parsimoniousness on the part of our sponsors, there is no actual trophy, but judging by the following stack of highlights, the honor of winning this prestigious affair outshines any short-lived euphoria that a dust-collecting golden cup may momentarily impart.
2001: S&S Restaurant in downtown Miami triumphs over the "Original" and "International" pancake houses. The spanking-new Clarke's Diner, located in the historic coral house on South Beach, places last and promptly goes out of business. My wife comments that my complexion appears "pasty."
2002: Hollywood icon Kyle MacLachlan and his new bride make their first public appearance as husband and wife at the Biltmore Hotel amid the flapjack judging frenzy (they breakfasted at a nearby table). The landmark hotel goes on to defeat Denny's and a roundup of diners. Mild bouts of gastrointestinal discomfort eventually subside.
2003: After abruptly rejecting numerous and admittedly vigorous requests to host our pancake pageant, MacLachlan seeks a restraining order. South Miami's Deli Lane Café brings home the Mrs. Beeton. I gain four pounds.
2004: Special on-the-road edition takes the Flip-Off from Dania Beach to Boca Raton, and the Miramar Diner easily flips off the competition. Along with a hypothetical trophy comes our suggestion to install extra counter stools for the flock of flapjackophiles soon to be vying for a coveted seat. Within weeks of winning, the Miramar closes for renovations -- no doubt to install those stools.
The rules remain the same: Plain, buttermilk pancakes (no blueberries, granola, Reese's Pieces) are to be judged upon taste, texture, and the sort of subtle differentiating characteristics detectable only to those with true pancake expertise. Additional factors that may or may not be considered include price, service, ambiance, quality of coffee, heat of coffee, speed with which coffee is refilled, and my daily horoscope.
A new statistical qualifier has been introduced this year. Because the satisfaction derived from pancakes is intrinsically linked to how steaming-hot they are, we've added the flapjack steam factor (FSF). Works are graded on a scale of zero to ten. Zero suggests a dry iron could generate more steam, while ten implies the waiter's glasses fog over while placing the plate on the table.
Another bold innovation: In the past we awarded bonus points for the use of real maple syrup, until it occurred to us that nobody uses real maple syrup. This year we'll be awarding bonus points for real fake maple syrup, meaning there's some maple flavoring involved.
So let's get going, as is tradition, with the General Mills/Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix/Log Cabin Maple Syrup/Land O'Lakes Butter/Mrs. Beeton Flapjack Flip-Off Official Opening Rally Cry: "Batters up!"
The MAYBE THEY SHOULD HAVE KEPT THE BUTTER FLAVORING FOR THE PANCAKES award goes to the Pelican restaurant. Points given for people-watching on Ocean Drive, swiftness of coffee refills (choice of milk or cream), and authentic fake maple syrup neatly filled to the top of a glass pourer. Points deducted for nearly everything else related to this trio of thin, bland, lukewarm pancakes (FSF: 0), and for Greenland butter pats that contain "cream and natural flavorings." What kind of butter requires flavoring? Price (one order of pancakes and one coffee): $8.90
The CAN I HAVE LOG CABIN KETCHUP ON MY FRENCH FRIES? award goes to Tasti D-Lite Café, whose two kosher pancakes were easily the fattest of all and possessed a pleasant vanilla flavor, but tasted as dry as matzo meal (FSF: 0). Points trashed for environmental imprudence for using disposable plastic cups to serve water and coffee (albeit hot and strong with a choice of milk or cream), and for using Heinz maple-free "breakfast syrup." Oy! This is a neat little café to check out, but stick to the potato latkes. Price (pancakes and coffee): $6.55
The MR. SOYKA IS ALREADY RICH AND DOESN'T NEED THIS award goes to his Van Dyke Café, whose quartet of medium-size, yellowish cakes were tender and flavorful. Appreciated additional touches: a dusting of powdered sugar on top, real fake maple syrup in a paper cup on the side, and butter pats without flavoring additives (expectations aren't what they used to be). Service was sloppy (no water was served) and coffee was weak. (FSF: 5. Steam not evidently emanating, but as pancakes were lifted, little clouds did escape.) Price (pancakes and coffee): $9.00.
The NOTHING TO BE ASHAMED OF RUNNER-UP award goes to Jimmy's Place II. A strong showing for this humble coffee shop in North Miami, whose serving of three thin, golden, softly textured flapjacks registered an FSF score of eight -- steaming and hot from the griddle! Butter in pats, real fake maple syrup in a jar, and a cup o' joe served hot and refilled regularly. Price (pancakes and coffee): $5.00 (best deal!).
The envelope, please: The Mrs. Beeton Trophy goes to ... the Rascal House, whose personable waitress boldly and presciently predicted victory in a contest she was unaware was taking place: "Our pancakes are the best in town." Of course by the time the winning griddlecakes arrive, you may be too full to savor their flavor -- Rascal serves five complimentary plates of bread and breakfast pastry products, including muffins, cinnamon buns, rye bread, rolls, marble cake, and so forth. Coffee was convincing and cheerfully refilled, and, in keeping with this year's numerical scheme, there were five pancakes on the oval plate -- slender but fluffy, moist and hot, properly seasoned with salt, and boasting the sort of brown-toned, tie-dye striations that only a perfectly cooked cake could. Butter was served in aluminum pats (unanimous this year), and syrup was the real fake McCoy. FSF: 8. Puffs of smokelike steam emerged from the stack, and they were white, signaling a winning choice for the Mrs. Beeton. Price (pancakes, coffee, and a doggy bag of baked goods): $8.70.
Pelican Hotel, 826 Ocean Dr, Miami Beach; 305-673-1000. Serves breakfast daily 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
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Tasti D-Lite Cafe, 4041 Royal Palm Ave, Miami Beach; 305-673-5483. Serves breakfast Monday through Friday 8:00 to 11:00 a.m., Sunday 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.
Van Dyke Cafe, 846 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 305-534-3600. Serves breakfast daily 7:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m.
Jimmy's Place II, 510 NE 125th St, North Miami; 305-892-1633. Serves breakfast Monday through Saturday 6:30 to 11:00 a.m., Sunday 7:00 to 11:00 a.m.
Rascal House, 17190 Collins Ave, Sunny Isles; 305-947-4581. Serves breakfast 24 hours daily.