Jonathan Gold Reviews L.A. Weekly Pancake Breakfast
Last weekend, if the Twitter feeds can be believed, was an important one in the world of cuisine. The old school flew up to Berkeley, where Chez Panisse was celebrating its 40th anniversary with a series of hosted dinners celebrating cooking as a liberal art, a means toward saving the planet and an instrument of social change. Social change is always easier to embrace when somebody like David Tanis is doing the cooking.
The new school, whose camp believe pretty much the same thing as the old school but probably got better grades in physics, flew to Copenhagen for MAD Foodcamp, which was kind of like a food-intensive TED conference hosted by Rene Redzepi, who is often called and may well be the best chef in the world at the moment. There the entertainment ran to David Chang's lecture on fermentation and Michel Bras' demonstration of the gargouillou, a dish that has become to modernist cooking what saumon à l'unilateral was to nouvelle cuisine.
It became almost a sport to guess which food luminary ended up in which city: Daniel Patterson, Copenhagen; Ruth Reichl, Berkeley; Harold McGee, Copenhagen; Nancy Silverton, Berkeley; Andoni Aduriz, Copenhagen; Jeremiah Tower, Berkeley — there probably wasn't a high-level forager left in the forests of Scandinavia or Sonoma County.
But if your concerns run toward waffles more than they do toward fjord-picked garlic shoots or lovingly nurtured nectarines, you may have been at the deconsecrated St. Vibiana's in downtown L.A., washed with brilliant light, where the L.A. Weekly Pancake Breakfast filled the former cathedral with long tables full of cooks, hundreds of happy people and a fugue of griddle vapors that William James may well have included in his Varieties of Religious Experience.
The pancake, of course, is a mutable form, adaptable in infinite ways to all sorts of flavors, textures and compositions. In areas where oven heat is expensive or unreliable, pancakes can be cooked on almost any heated surface, the quickest of all quick breads. Most European countries have their own pancake tradition — crepes, apple pancakes, latkes, even spherical ebelskivers. In Asia, you have green onion pancakes, sweet Thai pancakes, Korean mung bean pancakes and Japanese okonomiyaki, among many other kinds. Latin America has arepas, llapingachos and the universe of Mexican antojitos. In Los Angeles alone, there are dozens of global pancake traditions to explore, and something of a pancake renaissance in the more mainstream restaurants.
At the Pancake Breakfast, I was less a journalist than a fanboy, almost unable to fathom the presence of Biff Naylor, the Don Drysdale of the Los Angeles breakfast world, behind the table at Du-par's, Genet Agonafer spooning out bean stew with Ethiopian flatbread at the Meals by Genet booth, or Neal Fraser making blueberry pancakes at the BLD booth on the patio outside. Fred Eric of Tiara wore cat ears in honor of the Deth P. Sun graphic for the event, and served his pancakes with a scoop of smooth, cool lemon sabayon and a deft sprinkle of Maldon salt. John Sedlar and his crew from Playa did a kind of thick corn flatbread topped with wild arugula and a creamy chunk of fresh burrata cheese. Where else could you get the chance to taste the turmeric-yellow, pork-stuffed banh xeo from Xoia in conjunction with the dense, formidable oatmeal pancakes from Salt's Cure, or the almost supernaturally crunchy Polish pancakes from Warszawa along with the cornflake-breaded French toast from Marston's.
101 Noodle Express, the great Shandong-style noodle house in Alhambra, which just opened in the food court of the Fox Hills Mall, did a version of its famous beef roll: a Chinese pancake rolled around braised beef with a sweetish bean sauce. There was Kansai-style okonomiyaki, shaved bonito flakes waving in the breeze, from the guys behind Glowfish, who kept running the food out from where it was cooking in their truck in the parking lot. Kobawoo House griddled miniversions of its crisp haemul paejon, probably the dish it is best known for in Koreatown, behind possibly the pork-oyster wrap called bossam, right next to the table where Square One was sluicing its pancakes with a luscious bacon-fat caramel and Fig was smearing its fluffy ricotta-based pancakes with blueberry butter.
Bacon doughnut holes from Nickel Diner? Check. Apple pancakes from the Original Pancake House? Of course. Sour, fragrant South Indian appam, with vegetable curry, from Mayura? Delicious. The longest lines? Probably the people waiting at the LA Mill booth, where baristas patiently brewed individual pour-over cups all morning, or at Zona Rosa, for the Mexican-chocolate iced mochas and triply potent red-eyes, branded for their longtime customers Ozomatli.
I like pancakes — I'm almost a pancake obsessive. And it's always been something of a fantasy to be able to try pancakes from around the world side by side, to be able to taste a great haemul paejon while my lips were still sticky from a Du-par's flapjack. I really hope we do this again next year.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Los Angeles dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.