Photos by Anne FishbeinDim sum restaurants may provide more variety, and buffet lines more tonnage, but there may be no meal in America that commands more acreage than breakfast at the Original Pancake House, a massive if two-dimensional feast that covers large tabletops as thoroughly as king-size fitted sheets. Jumbo spinach crepes are served with a side of thin, LP-size potato pancakes; butter-dripping Dutch babies are the size of satellite dishes; and puffy cheese omelets, already as big as Mary Poppins’ handbag, come with broad stacks of buttermilk pancakes — or, for an extra buck, an oozing payload of chocolate-chip pancakes buried underneath a shot put of freshly whipped cream. If you can see even a scrap of table underneath the barrage of sausage patties, fresh orange juice, basted eggs, stewed prunes, hash browns, strawberry waffles, Cointreau-flavored sour cream, and ham, the restaurant hasn’t been doing its job.
Have you ever seen an Original Pancake House apple pancake? It is a mammoth, golden thing as wide as a railway-station clock, rising from its plate in a kind of cinnamon-steamy majesty, a testament to the mighty powers of expansion contained within a simple egg. Half a peck of Granny Smith apples are included in the construction — at least it seems that way — sliced, browned, and bound with a ruddy, shiny syrup flavored with cinnamon imported from the Vietnamese province of Sinkiang. If you dropped the pancake from a height, you could crack a tile floor, although the rubbery density of the base might cause it to bounce crazily instead. The apple pancake is big enough to anchor a schooner, ballast a blimp or sate a hungry synchronized-swim team, although it is typically ordered by a single diner. It is a fearsome pile of food, dense as a deep-dish pizza.
The local outpost of the Original Pancake House chain occupies a breakfast chalet down toward the Palos Verdes peninsula, a cavernous dining room with spacious booths, a permanent haze of bacon fumes, and the kind of peaked roof that Californians have learned to associate with pancakes and hot coffee.
The original Original Pancake House opened in Portland, Oregon, in 1953. In 1955, claims the menu, somebody in Paris named it one of the best 10 restaurants in the United States. (The menu, in fact, may exemplify what Frenchmen expected of American cuisine back when they thought of us as bighearted rustics rather than ruthless hegemons.) By the end of the ’50s, the chain had spread to the Midwest. The Original Pancake Houses in northern Illinois became popular to the extent that the original Oregonian recipes became celebrated as an important part of Chicago’s indigenous cuisine. Many people who dine frequently at the mammoth Walker Brothers’ Original Pancake House in the North Shore city of Wilmette are unaware that it is part of a chain at all, and will hotly deny the restaurant’s Portland roots when challenged.
The manager of the Redondo Beach restaurant occasionally rolls her eyes when customers bring up Wilmette, but gamely points out that all the restaurants use the same recipes, the same thick-cut bacon, the same OPH-roast coffee and the same 93-score butter (also known as AA butter). The vast, loose mounds of corned-beef hash are the same, right down to the handful of sautéed onions. The restaurant’s motto, printed just below its logo, is “The World’s Most Copied Menu.”
And the pancakes are pretty good, whether made with buttermilk, sourdough starter or wheat germ and sour cream, spiked with pecans or bits of crunchy bacon, topped with pineapple or shreds of toasted coconut. The slippery 49’er Flap Jacks are especially good — extra-gooey and extra-flat, with a texture halfway between a yeasted pancake and a crepe and a porousness that seems just right for soaking up butter and syrup.
At prime brunch hours, the wait for a table can verge on the infinite, although you may be the only person in the restaurant if you show up on a Tuesday at noon. The regulars include beach dudes and a fair smattering of bikers, but the tables inside are occupied mostly by members of the Greatest Generation, whose taste in natty sports shirts and intricately carved canes is as refined as their taste in pancakes and waffles.
Original Pancake House, 1756 Pacific Coast Highway, Redondo Beach; (310) 543-9875. Breakfast and lunch daily. Breakfast for two, food only, $12–$20. No alcohol. Takeout weekdays only. Lot parking. MC, V. Recommended dishes: 49’er Flap Jacks, omelets, thick-cut bacon.
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