Pancakes Make People Happy

When I was at NYU in the mid-1990's, one of my favorite haunts was the now-defunct Royal Canadian Pancake House, a bustling joint that served gargantuan portions of breakfast classics, including manhole-sized pancakes, whole loaves of French toast, and the appropriately-named "womelette" - an omelette-topped waffle. Their slogan, "Pancakes Make People Happy", was simple, yet it's a belief that I've embraced throughout my eating life. Considering that most cuisines worldwide have their own regional form of pancakes (like French crepes or Chinese scallion pancakes), I've been fortunate to sample these tasty griddle treats in all shapes and sizes. Following is a smattering of my faves:

Maybe it’s my Jewish heritage, or simply my love of all things fried, but potato pancakes, or latkes, are always welcome on my plate year-round, and not just as the traditional Hanukkah meal. These beauties to your left were devoured at Norma's, the breakfast-centric restaurant at the Parker Palm Springs Hotel (a decadent oasis of Moroccan, desert chic). Norma's elevates breakfast to a gourmet level; amuse-bouche smoothies begin every meal and the menu features such fancy items as Foie Gras Brioche French Toast and a $1000 Lobster & Caviar omelette. However, Norma's version of gourmet isn't stuffy; there is a whimsical playfulness to the dishes and the food is more haute-comfort (and huge portions) than fancy five-star French. Norma's latkes are hefty cakes of shredded potato and onion that are perfectly fried on the outside, yet surprisingly smooth and doughy on the inside. I tend to prefer savory to sweet with my latke condiments (i.e. sour cream over applesauce)so I adored pouring the accompanying Sweet Carrot Payasam, a creamy, earthy Indian soup, over my latkes. If you have a sweet tooth, you'll dig the homemade Cranberry-Apple sauce, but I found it overly sugary even in spite of the tart cranberries. FYI, there is also a Norma's at the Parker Meridian Hotel in NYC, a memorable spot for my family because it is where my sister's hubby surprised her with a proposal in front of me, my mom, my Bubby, and my aunt.

Living in Echo Park, a Latino-filled neighborhood of Los Angeles,
I’ve been blessed with Latin-American eats right at my doorstep. It is here that I discovered pupusas and the aptly named pupuserias (I love how ethnic eateries often specialize in one dish and then name their restaurant after said dish, making it an easy find for the food explorer). Traditionally from El Salvador, the pupusa is a thick tortilla made from masa de maiz (corn flour) and stuffed with various savory fillings like my favorite chicharròn, fried pork rinds. These heavy, doughy cakes are normally served with curtido (pickled cabbage relish), and a runny tomato sauce. Like many pancakes, pupusas are comforting and filling, yet I find they are best followed by a nap or other leisurely activity due to their tendency to weigh down your stomach.

One of my latest discoveries is the arepa, a cornmeal cousin to the pupusa originating from South America. Depending on the region, arepas can be found in a varitey of thicknesses, size, fillings and garnishes. I tasted this version, a Blue Corn Arepa topped with melted cheese, at the Savory Cafe, a cozy joint in downtown Ventura, CA. The blue corn infused the arepa with earthiness while the oozy cheese complemented the crispy pancake perfectly. While a quesadilla has a 2:1 tortilla to cheese ratio, I liked the 1:1 balance of this dish, allowing for more gooey cheese per bite.

Last, but not least, my good friend, and culinary companion, Barndi,just turned me on to ho-dduk, a sweet, Korean pancake made from rice flour and stuffed with a gooey,brown sugar filling. I had my first taste chez Barndi, but my next stop is to head to L.A's Koreatown and taste these goodies piping hot from the street carts.

Post Update: My friend, John, sent me this amazing recipe from the NY Times for Heavenly Hots. These creamy, dreamy, little gems are surprisingly light (not "thuds in your bellies", the author's accurate description of pancakes) thanks to the use of cake flour and sour cream. FYI, don't be intimidated by the warnings about how hard it is to flip these beauties; I found it unexpectedly easy, and I'm far from an expert pan-wielder.