I have been told it takes awhile for contests to ripen into widely publicized, well-respected, duly recognized affairs -- believe it or not, the first World Series wasn't even televised! So I am neither disappointed nor surprised that the topic around South Florida's water coolers this week hasn't centered on whether S&S Diner will hold on to its prized pancake trophy, or if it's fair that a diner located in an old pharmacy has to compete with a multimillion-dollar hotel in the Best Maple Syrup category, or on any other such anticipatory chatter regarding the Second Annual Flapjack Flip-Off. I am confident the public's enthusiasm for this affair will eventually rise like a well-yeasted blini.
The competition last year was highlighted by S&S Diner beating out one "original" and one "international" pancake house; by Clarke's Diner on South Beach coming in last and being so humiliated it packed up and left town; and by nagging gastrointestinal disorders that mercifully subsided after a few weeks' time. In recognizing that contests need not just maturation, but careful tinkering and improvement before they can attract maximum public interest (believe me, anyone who saw the opening and closing ceremonies at the original Olympics will tell you they were pathetic in comparison to recent years), we've ushered in a number of important changes.
Firstly the arena has been widened from four to seven unknowing participants, including drugstore diners, a national restaurant chain, and a fancy-schmantzy hotel. And while last year's winners were announced by me, in my pajamas, in my living room, with only my cat Sly in attendance, this year my wife has promised that if she's home she'll pretend to listen as well. Unfortunately she also added an ambiguous statement on the order of "Some people in this house actually have to go to work in the morning," which makes me believe I shouldn't count on her participation as a sure thing. Audience demographics and such don't matter to me anyway -- what's important are the awards themselves, not some shallow, ostentatious ceremony.
Second Annual Flapjack Flip-Off
Based on the universal pancake premise that "if the batter ain't broke, don't fix it," the basic rules remain the same: no blueberries, bananas, buckwheat, granola, chocolate chips, chewing gum, or any other added options -- plain buttermilk pancakes only. The main criteria for judgment: quality of pancake. Fluffy or flat? Moist or dry? Steamy or cold? And all the subtle nuances, if there are any, in between. Secondary considerations may include the service, ambiance, quality of maple syrup, originality of garnish, type of coffee poured, the weather, how good a night's sleep I've had, sheer whim, and so forth. As any professional contest judge will tell you, weighing these numerous factors all at once is not an easy thing, but one of the unique attributes of the Flapjack Flip-Off is that there are no losers -- everyone goes home with an award.
Enough with the pomp -- let's proceed. Or as our Quaker Oats Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix Second Annual Flapjack Flip-Off Official Opening Cry goes: Batter Up!
The "At least you don't have to go far for a remedy if the pancakes don't sit right in the stomach" award goes to: Sheldon's, the corner drugstore/luncheonette in Surfside whose claim to fame is that Isaac Bashevis Singer was eating here when informed he had won the Nobel Prize for literature -- I wish I'd had as good an excuse for not finishing the pancakes. You'd think that after more than 50 years in operation they'd be able to do better than the trio of chewy, overcooked flapjacks that were slapped down on the counter. The syrup wasn't real maple, the butter came in paper-topped pats, and the coffee, billed on the menu as "a careful roasting of the finest and most expensive coffee grown anywhere in the world," was the typical weak coffee-shop variety. Price: 3 pancakes for $3.25; coffee $1.06. At 9501 Harding Ave., Surfside; 305-866-6251.
The "Most of the time we serve the same fine pancakes to everyone, regardless of their color" award goes to: Denny's. There was, in truth, less of a range between the worst and best pancakes this year. Denny's buttermilk flapjacks are probably prepared from a mix similar to the others, but they arrived at the table too pale in color, and lukewarm rather than steamy. Soft butter came in a scoop on top (preferable to individual pats), the maple-flavored syrup in a half-filled jar mislabeled "blueberry." Millstone coffee was steaming hot and relatively strong, the waitress quick on refills -- but slow on everything else. Price: 3 pancakes for $4.17; coffee $1.32. At 2947 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. 305-672-3393. Other locations.
The "How do you expect me to judge your damn pancakes at the ungodly hour of 7:30 a.m. on one measly cup of coffee" award goes to: Smitty's Restaurant. Steamy hot and fluffy, but lacking color on the outside with a bland, raw-batter flavor within (though the cakes were cooked through). Standard fake maple syrup, but the butter pats were salted (not quite appropriate for pancakes). Bonus points for homey surroundings and smiling waitresses. Bonus points subtracted, and then some, for never offering a refill on coffee -- and I was seated at the counter! Price: 3 for $3.45, 2 for $3. Coffee: $1.09. At 3195 NE Second Ave., Miami; 305-573-3162.
The "Nice address, same pancake mix" award goes to: Gables Diner. They were hot, slightly darker in color (though still not robustly brown), the syrup cold and not real maple, the coffee hot and rapidly replenished. "Not bad" is the best you can say. Price: 3 for $5; 5 for $8. Coffee: $2. At 2320 Galiano Ave., Coral Gables; 305-567-0330.
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The "Congeniality" award goes to: Picnics at Allen's. The waitresses charm in an old-fashioned way; the pancakes are puffy, pleasant-tasting, and feature attractive striations across the well-browned surfaces. My guess is that they use Bisquick pancake mix, as opposed to the more subtly flavored Aunt Jemima. Maple-flavored syrup served in plastic squeeze bottles, which takes away even the pleasure of pretending to be pouring on real syrup. Price: 2 for $2.95, 3 for $3.95. Coffee: 95 cents. At 4000 Red Rd., Miami; 305-665-6964.
The "Russell Crowe Syndrome" award goes to: S&S Diner. The winner of the First Annual Flapjack Flip-Off, this 64-year-old downtown Miami institution still puts out a heckuva plate of cakes. The trio of large, extra-fluffy flapjacks were richly browned, moist, and emitted little puffs of steam. Syrup watery, and points taken off for serving margarine, not butter. Price: 3 large flapjacks for $2.95 -- for the second year in a row, the best pancake bargain. At 1757 NE Second Ave., Miami; 305-373-4291.
Winner of the Second Annual Flapjack Flip-Off is: 1200 at the Biltmore Hotel. The pancakes are twice as pricey as the rest, but are more than twice as good. Though thinner and crêpier than I prefer, the three delicate, golden-hued cakes emanated the sweet tastes of butter and vanilla, at the same time convincingly evoking the freshness of made-from-scratch batter. Little butter balls, two small bottles of real Vermont maple syrup, and a faint dusting of confectioners' sugar combined for the strongest of supporting casts, and that's not even taking into account three melon-ball scoops of fruit on the side -- the only garnish among the contenders. Excellent coffee, professional service, and charming courtyard seats by an outdoor fountain further enhanced the appeal of the winning flapjacks. That famous Hollywood actor Kyle MacLachlan was sitting at a nearby table did not add points or in any way affect the voting process, though I was touched by his decision to make a surprise appearance at this year's event. One can only surmise that the third flip-off is going to be a doozy. Price: 3 for $8.75. Coffee: $2.50. At 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables; 305-445-1926.