Pancakes are a special treat for Sunday breakfast and brunch. Forget the egg dishes and go for some of the very best pancakes in Portland.
Pancakes are an indulgence at breakfast and are often over shadowed by the lure of greater dishes like omelets or variations on eggs Benedict. In fact in the high order of the power breakfast, pancakes just don’t cut it. Which is a curiosity since as a preparation they can have very sophisticated components: lightened by a meringue of egg whites folded in or the tang of buttermilk, sour cream or yogurt that elevates the pancake into something special.
This may explain why I didn’t find a passionate presence of pancakes on many Portland menus at breakfast or brunch as I set out to see how the city’s morning hot spots are trending.
Just so you know where I’m coming from, here is my ideal pancake: the batter should be on the thin side, just shy of a crepe, be lightened with whipped eggs white and contain an acidic element like buttermilk, yogurt or sour cream and finally cooked in butter and oil so that the edges are crisp.
After a week of navigating the local flapjack route (and so many pounds heavier), here are my findings. I could have included more places (like Becky’s Diner, whose pancakes are very good), but five days and five restaurants were enough. So my research didn’t include Portland’s hotel dining rooms; Bintliff’s, of which I’m not a fan, or the Porthole. And the wonderful pancakes at the Palace Diner in Biddeford were out of my research boundaries. Surprisingly the popular breakfast haunts like Hot Suppa and Local 188 do not serve pancakes
Marcy’s. Portion control at this cheekily wonderful greasy spoon is anathema to co-owner chef Darla Neugebauer, whose giant portions practically appetite stamina. Her pancakes — no silver dollars but more the size of giant doubloons — were the best of my samplings. Darla makes everything delicious with copious amounts of melted butter, which she keeps in large metal receptacles next to her cooktops and splashes over everything from the hash browns, muffins, eggs, French toast and pancakes.
I watched my order being prepared as I sat at the counter. The flat top gets a heavy dose of butter schmeered onto the surface before the buttermilk batter — chockfull of blueberries — is ladled onto the hot grill. As they cook they rise like the wind into sensational specimens. Darla convinced me to have my pancakes with the works. And so I dug into perfect over-easies, grilled ham steak, fabulous crusty hash browns and these luscious pancakes on their own plate. Served with real maple syrup and a tub of butter, they were superb.
Caiola’s. I wasn’t surprised that this wonderful West End restaurant has sensational pancakes on their Sunday breakfast and brunch menu. They’re easily as good as Marcy’s but for different reasons. They’re big yet retain a light and extremely fluffy texture. They’re not filled with berries though you can ask for chocolate shavings on top. They have a touch of buttermilk in the batter but it doesn’t dominate. They’re sweet, very rich with goodness; apparently they’re from an old recipe of chef and co-owner Abby Harmon’s Down East family. And as long as you’re having them, order the maple-glazed bacon as a side, a sinfully good dish. The pancakes are served with creamy butter and pure maple syrup, but that little extra bit of smoky pork just sets it all right. The order is a stack of three but you can opt for two — anymore is a one-way ticket to the fat farm.
The Front Room. This popular outpost, an original maverick on Munjoy Hill, is as popular as ever. And there’s every reason to go there for a pancake breakfast. They call their stack silver dollars, meaning that they’re smaller than the other half-footers that abound elsewhere. You get two short stacks of three 4-inch round pancakes that are beautifully cooked. The buttermilk batter is light, almost crepe like and are loaded with wild Maine blueberries and served with a little tin of soft butter and real maple syrup. The delicious thick rashers of bacon are from a local farm. But there was one problem: the bacon, which is served separately in a dish, sat in a pool of bacon grease when it should have been better drained. Otherwise these and the previous two remain the best pancakes that I tried.
The Miss Portland Diner. They serve an excellent style of pancake but you’re best advised to order only one—maybe two if you think it’s your last meal ever. They’re literally dinner-plate size measuring at least 8 to 9 inches across. The pancakes, however, were a little heavy-handed for me; I like a fluffier, lighter pancake, but they’re excellent nonetheless. With great flavor and plenty of blueberries, this is a wholesome pancake typical of the diner school. The bacon is good but ultimately standard issue.
The Bayou Kitchen. Given the high degree of griddle cookery at this popular place I was expecting the flapjacks to be special. They were good, but not remarkable. Though they did have lots of wild berries in the batter. And the flavor was good, texture fluffyish, but they could have been lighter. Maple syrup is extra and the butter is on the table in foil packets. The side of bacon, however, was disappointing. You’d expect to have rashers of artisanal quality from a southern smokehouse since the food here aspires to southern Creole cooking. At best it was standard issue and not drained well.
I generally don’t have coffee during the day after my initial morning cup at home. But I ordered coffee at each pancake outing and concluded this: Restaurant coffee is just not good unless it’s freshly made in a French press brought to the table or by the pour-over method. Otherwise what you get in a $2.50 cup of coffee is a burned, acidic brew that’s been sitting around too long.