Special Report

The Epic Quest for Portland's Perfect Pancake

We ate our way across the local flapjack landscape in search of the best.

By Karen Brooks and Kelly Clarke December 28, 2017 Published in the January 2018 issue of Portland Monthly

0118 eat drink pancake quest collage ykjvuq

Left to right, from top: John Street Café, Stepping Stone, Proud Mary, La Panza, Country Cat (2), Jackrabbit, Zell’s, Original Hotcake House, Jam on Hawthorne, Besaw’s, Batter, Original Pancake House (2), Sweedeedee, Sanborn’s

Nothing—no food trend, no dietary doctrine—can kill the humble pancake. Pancakes are forever, the edible equivalent of a morning hug, an Americana shorthand for warmth and happiness. But finding a great one is tough: rich in fluff and burnish, full of buttery-earthy sweetness, a bit of lacy crunch at the edges, and drizzled, natch, with warm, sticky syrup.

Who makes the best pancake in town? Finding the answer obsessed us. In the end, we focused on griddled rounds (and included Dutch babies, too, because it just felt right). Then we sought out spots with pancake rep to defend, chefs pushing new flapjack ideas, and, frankly, places with “cake” in their name. And, yes, we kept a scoresheet. Every pancake received a maximum 20 points: 10 for taste and texture; up to 5 for presentation; up to 5 random bonus points for the little things that make a morning special, good coffee to good tunes. Now, excuse us. We need a nap.

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Image: Karen Brooks

#1  Sweedeedee Corncake Plate

Taste: 10/Presentation: 4/Bonus: 4.5 = 18.5 
Everything to love about a pancake rises here: pioneer-homey yet somehow light, moist and rich as a birthday cake. Cornmeal is the secret weapon, and its golden aura penetrates deep. Dark spots, grill rings, and irregular toasty bits swarm the surface, doubling the pleasure. If you ask, the kitchen will cut loose a side order ($5), but then you’d miss the perfect pancake breakfast plate ($13), two rollicking beauts backed by crackling tongues of bacon; cast-iron baked eggs glistening with good salt, and—just to make you feel like a righteous little beast—farm-grown collard greens, deliciously stewed. Bonus Points: Where else can you dispatch first-rate pancakes to the sounds of Ethiopian classical music or Dead Moon, from one of the city’s best turntable collections? The coffee is good and strong, and so is the rest of the breakfast menu. The lines and twee sensibility can be maddening, but these are the trade-offs.

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Clockwise from top: Original Pancake House’s blueberry, sourdough, apple, and buckwheat pancakes 

Image: Kelly Clarke

#2 Original Pancake House Blueberry Pancakes & Silver Dollar Pancakes

9/3/5 = 17
Settle into the knotty-pine dining room, give your order to a gal in pink-skirted uniform and marvel to yourself: how is this place, opened in 1953, still an arbiter of pancake craft? The selection is large enough for its own Library of Congress number, but small details lay down the law: light, tender, mouth-melting buttermilks, clouds of salty whipped butter, hot syrup, pulpy OJ, juicy, finger-skinny sausage links. The legendary specials don’t live up to memory: the vaunted apple pancake is now a gummy sugar shock. The stunners are the humblest plates: feathery, challah-like silver dollars (10 for $10.50) and blueberry pancakes ($10.75), destined to be lavished with a blue-hued syrup packed to the hilt with plump berries—a thing of beauty made fresh daily. Come prepared, as it’s cash or check only (ATM on-site). Bonus: A genuine taste of Old Old Portland, complete with black-and-white photos of a tiara-crowned Dairy Princess flipping cakes in the kitchen.

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Image: Kelly Clarke

#3 Proud Mary Ricotta Hotcake with Citrus Syrup

8/5/3 = 16
Traditionalists, see #2 and #4. This Aussie coffee roaster vaults the pancake into the realm of food art. There’s one option only: an impressive, inch-thick ricotta hotcake ($11.50) strewn with edible flowers, berries, and seeds, served in a shallow bowl. That doesn’t count the meringue puff that looks like a sugar snail winding along a woodland path. Or the near-savory dollop of chantilly cream. It’s rare to find this level of visual drama in town, let alone before you’ve had a drop of morning coffee. It’s not all looks: The cake’s crisp and sturdy top wields biscuity charm. As your fork travels down, everything gets denser and richer until it ends in a puckery, Lemonhead-esque finish, thanks to the citrus syrup hiding below. A genuinely eye-opening confetti cannon of texture and flavor. Bonus: High-quality caffeine, top-notch service, double-thick bacon, and a stylish room make this a morning destination. 

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Image: Karen Brooks

#4 Besaw’s Buttermilk Pancake

8/3/4 = 15 
The straight-up ideal of pancakedom: light and bronzed, cooked evenly throughout, with a robust flavor and buttermilk perfume. We discovered it on Day 6 of hate-stuffing our faces with forkfuls of flour and sugar, and still wolfed the whole thing down—it’s that good. The secret? The kitchen whips egg whites to a meringue and then folds ‘em into the batter in order to get that “grandma-style fluff.” Best move: package a sturdy single ($4) with excellent, oversize pork sausage links made in-house ($6). Bonus: Soft swirled butter (instead of the ubiquitous Darigold pats), warm syrup, good cocktails, and, for sweet fiends, the cult Dream Cakes ($12)—cream cheese frosted and toffee sauce drizzled. (Think IHOP* special that actually tastes good.) *IHOP is terrible, people.

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Image: Karen Brooks

#5 La Panza Blue Corn Piñon Pancakes

8/3/3 = 14 
Only a misanthrope would leave this strip-mall New Mexican cubbyhole without a giant smile. Santa Fe native Andy Razatos’s recipe has deep roots in his family’s 70-year-old Plaza Café. His pride is so infectious, you want to hug him. He sweats the details. Every stack ($12.25) is hearty but tender, fetchingly burnished, and popping with buttery, toasted pine nuts. The rustic deliciousness can be traced to coarse-ground blue tamale masa, gleaned from Portland’s rigorous Three Sisters Nixtamal. You eat it with warm syrup and gusto while happy accordion music flutters overhead. Bonus: Mexican hot chocolate that tastes like milk chocolate pudding.

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Image: Karen Brooks

#6 Sanborn’s German Pancake

7/3.5/3 = 13.5
The backstory at this cheery, unassuming Brooklyn café is as surprising as the menu. Chef-owner Russ Sanborn honed his griddle skills at the Original Pancake House as a teen in the early 1960s, schooling visiting OPH franchise owners from Chicago to Tokyo in the art of the Dutch baby’s eggy loft and powdered sugar puff. Nearly 40 years later, he opened Sanborn’s. He still cranks out the city’s best baby, a.k.a. German pancake: a three-inch crater of golden satisfaction, with a beautiful, rich chew. Bonus: Unique options like sourdough pancakes, explosively tangy and made with a starter that dates to Oregon Trail days; complimentary bittersweet house molasses-maple syrup; a craggy-wonderful upside-down German hiding tart apples and bacon crumbles, served so hot the top is strewn with caramelized sugar threads.

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Image: Kelly Clarke

#7 Cameo Café Quarter Acre Buttermilk Pancakes

5/3/5 = 13
These pancakes are BIG.* Like, “eclipse the plate and exert their own gravitational pull over nearby objects” big—sucking crispy bacon, bottles of cult house hot sauce, and mini jugs of “15% real maple syrup” into their dense, buttery orbit. This is what carb love tastes like: flubbery yet fluffy with a surprisingly toasty flavor. “It’s just Krusteaz box mix,” staffers shrug. “The secret is the flattop grill.” Bonus: Honestly, much of the draw at this warm Korean-American diner is the cramped room, with its Liberace swoon décor (tinkling chandeliers, ironwork chairs) and sliding glass door pasted with photos of regional beauty queens and community leaders. *$5.50 for a “quarter acre” cake; $11.50 for a four cake, a.k.a. “full acre,” order.

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Image: Karen Brooks

#8 Coquine Seasonal Lemon Ricotta Pancakes

6/3/4 = 13
When we started our pancake quest, only one thing seemed certain: Coquine’s rye-whispering rounds would easily win. Last summer, they were a marvel of egg-white-whipped fluff, backed by a drop-your-fork blueberry-maple compote. But each season brings a new specialty, and autumn’s model, smothered in ricotta cheese and lemon curd, was overkill ($11). Best move: ditch the topping (for now) and cap those fine little cakes with the best amber elixir around, Greenstate Sugaring Maple Syrup, hand-tapped in Vermont by Gresham farmer Dan Sullivan. Bonus: Expert level coffee drinks, and pancake heretics can fixate on irresistible buckwheat biscuits or major granola. 

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Image: Karen Brooks

#9 John Street Café Filbert and Currant Pancake

5.5/4/3 = 12.5
This monument to golden griddled pride stretches well beyond the plate, handsome enough to frame on a wall. Big filberts and crinkled raisins roam the interior, while orange twists and warm syrup dance on top. At $7, it’s a steal, big enough for three. Pity: if only the batter had more inherent flavor, and the orange juice didn’t separate. Bonus: An art-filled, neighborhood café, deep in St. Johns charm. 

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Image: Kelly Clarke

#10 Slappy Cakes DIY Pancakes

3/5/4 = 12
Stars, skulls, bacon-sprinkled Totoros; the pancakes at this always-packed Belmont spot come in every shape imaginable—cause you’re the one making ’em. Servers arm families with squeeze bottles of house batters ($6.95 each, vegan and GF available) and myriad toppings ($2–3 each), crank up the tabletop grills, and keep the spicy Bloody Marys coming for the parental units. Ante up for both buttermilk and chocolate batter for high-contrast pancake art. Bonus: There’s little reason to come without a kid—the neutral-tasting pancakes are just a thin, edible canvas—but it’s ridiculously fun. Points off for interminable weekend waits ... with kids. 

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Image: Kelly Clarke

#11 Country Cat Three Little Pigs Plate

5/3.5/2 = 10.5
The Cat’s pancake platter ($11) is a looker: the trio of hefty cakes embossed with Saturn-ring griddle marks and frizzled trails of batter ooze, the XXL (but overly herby) house sausages—it’s as if someone paid a food stylist to create a Family Dining stock photo. Too bad the cakes are marred by a baking soda aftertaste, like lightly licking a cast-iron pan. Still, they’re light, crisp, and super-fluffy, the home-style rounds smeared with soft butter and warm puddles of maple. Bonus: Great value; sharp service.

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Image: Karen Brooks

#12 Headwaters Buttermilk Pancakes with Kiyokawa Farms Apple (seasonal)

5/3/2 = 10
This two-level stack is a standard-issue swanky hotel breakfast. But that topping! Imagine baked apples in chunk form, then caramelized to seal the tart, juicy deal—it’s one of the best seasonal toppers we tasted. (The kitchen has moved on to huckleberries, but keep an eye out for those apples.) Still, at $14, you wish the kitchen threw in some bacon or warmed the syrup. Bonus: Are power breakfasts still a thing? If so, this place is a good alternative to Bijou.

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Image: Karen Brooks

#13 Zell’s Café Buttermilk Pancakes

4.5/2/2 = 8.5 
Does this cozy standby serve the best pancakes in town? Nah—its pleasant buttermilks are bland but sport a nice cornmeal crunch, while its Dutch babies taste like leathery omelet skin. Bonus: And yet, we’d return, if only for the little pork sausage links and friendly, time-warped vibe.

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Image: Kelly Clarke

#14 Batter Pecan Do It! Pancakes

4/3/1 = 8
The cakes at this waffle/crêpe/pancake bar are a bit tough and rubbery, but the toppings are solid and the morning cocktails generous. Best bet? Three cakes beneath a rubble of toasty pecans and crunchy-good brown sugary streusel surrounding a dome of flavorful maple whoop. Point off for ice-cold syrup. Bonus: Vastly improved in the past year.

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Image: Kelly Clarke

#15 Original Hotcake House Strawberry Pancake

2/1/3 = 6
Let’s not syrup-coat it. This storied 24-hour diner serves drunk food: cheap plates to sop hangovers into submission. That includes the huge, heavy scratch pancakes ($5 single; $12.95 for two cakes with eggs and bacon), best deluged with the house’s freezer-jammy strawberry sauce—a diabetic coma, liquefied and bottled. Bonus: Excellent people-watching, iconic signage, and vanilla creamer by the pitcher.

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Image: Kelly Clarke

#16 Jam on Hawthorne Lemon Ricotta Maddie Cakes 

2/2/1 = 5
Why is there always a line here? Those Maddie Cakes ($9) are oddly salty and mushy. Popular chai-spiced vegan/GF oatmeal rounds ($11) smell of gingerbread, but each bite ends up a cloggy lump glued to the roof of your mouth. Bonus: Great kids’ area. 

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Image: Kelly Clarke

#17 Stepping Stone Café Mancake

1/1/3 = 5
In 2009, this kitchen’s 13-inch behemoths had their close-up on macho gorge-fest Man v. Food, but, sadly, the expiration date has arrived for the famed “Mancake” triple-decker ($9): a ghastly pale rider, not so much griddled as blow-dried. Bonus: One of the last of NW’s gritty, throwback relics, where Clyde Drexler’s face still beams from a Wheaties box. 

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Image: Karen Brooks

#18 Jackrabbit Buttermilk Flapjacks with Banana Jam

1/1/2 = 4
The mischievous bunny-ear-branded plates look cool. But alas, the downtown hotel’s wan, blond rounds taste like gummy air and disintegrate at the touch of a fork; the one-note banana jam’s sweet enough to make your teeth throb. Bonus: Gracious servers.

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