A real pancake is a thing of beauty. Not Bisquick or the fast food version, but an honest-to-goodness made from scratch griddle cake filled with love and real buttermilk. Some people, like my earnest dining companion, grew up with these comfort food treats. Others of us were forced to eat the cheap boxed crap that looks and tastes like foam insulation.
In hopes of reviving our blunted breakfast palates, we tracked down two local breakfast joints known for their tasty homemade pancakes. Read on to find out how relative newbie Joe's Diner fared against the heavyweight: Matt's Big Breakfast.
In One Corner: Joe's Diner
4433 N 16th St. in Phoenix
"This has got to be, hands down, THE BEST BREAKFAST PLACE IN TOWN!!!!!!" writes Yelper Mary D enthusiastically (judging by the all caps and half a dozen exclamation points). Them's fightin' words. With Matt's Big Breakfast having such a high rep and a morning wait a mile long, we had to see what the fuss was about at Joe's.
The place is tucked inside a retro looking auto body shop building that's been converted into one half classic car dealer and one half quaint breakfast spot. Walking into Joe's Diner is like jumping through a time warp -- in a good way. Seriously, welcome to Happy Days revisited. Joe's boasts sparkly red counter stools, tin road signs, vinyl booths and a jukebox in the back. The only thing missing is a cheeky waitress in a pink dress and white apron, wearing a plastic name tag and popping gum bubbles.
We may not have been around for the '50s, but we still felt the nostalgic appeal. Chatty waitresses poured endless cups o' Joe and talked up daily specials. Aunt Bea and her knitting pals exchanged belated Christmas gifts purchased from TV infomercials in the booth next to us. Even "Joe" himself walked around bussing tables and talking about his family.
Pancakes come in short or tall stacks for $2.99-3.99 or as part of the #2 Special, which included eggs, two types of meat and a short stack. We sprung the extra two bucks for the special and took the five minute wait time to look at old sports cars for sale next door through a glass window in the wall. Our pancakes and such arrived shortly, served on a classic oval diner plate. I could immediately tell these suckers were different.
The pancakes were flatter than the pre-mixed kind, with a thin brown coating that crisped under my fork. My dining partner and I each took a bite and smiled. They weren't fluffy, but they were delicious. The pancakes were dense and rich, with the creamy tang of real buttermilk. I'd never tasted anything like them. "Now, this is a real buttermilk pancake, not one made with powder," said my friend as he savored a bite. "These are easily the best pancakes I've had in a decade!!!!!!"
Turns out those Yelp! exclamation points might have been necessary after all.
We devoured every bite of the griddle cakes in minutes, barely pausing to reach for the sugary syrup. The only downside of Joe's is that food is slightly greasier than normal -- likely because butter, milk and other whole ingredients are used in place of cooking sprays and low-fat substitutes. But putting aside weight and health concerns, we could eat here every day.
In the Other Corner: Matt's Big Breakfast
801 N. 1st St. in Phoenix
Unlike the competition, Matt's Big Breakfast has been around long enough to attract a cult following. Owned by Matt Poole and his wife Erenia, the tiny eatery gained even more notoriety when it was featured on Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives in 2009. Which category did it fall in? Diners, hopefully.
The restaurant's name is ironic considering the miniscule footprint of the place -- it's about the size of my college dorm common room. There's not even enough square footage to put in a public restroom. The outside is adorable, with orange brick and retro looking signage. Inside is another story. The walls are plain white. The decor is minimal. The crowded restaurant includes a handful of diner tables, a counter with padded chrome swivel stools and a small window counter with ass-numbing metal stools.
Guess where I sat after waiting on a hard bench for forty-five minutes.
The menu is limited to a handful of breakfast staples and lunch sandwiches. The prices have gone up since the online version of the menu was printed. I ordered up griddle cakes with a side of sausage and an egg, for a total bill of over $15 for one person (my dining companion couldn't hack the wait and had to join me later for leftovers). While waiting, I alternated between staring out the large window at passersby and playing with the plastic cow and pig that served as the only decoration in my little corner.
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Breakfast arrived on several plates. The griddle cakes looked more like I expected; fluffy and lightly browned, with the hallmark craters that bubbling pancake batter forms while cooking. They were plenty big and tall, with a butter round melting on top and a side of real maple syrup. I dug in and was assaulted with memories of my dad making dollar-sized Bisquick pancakes on weekends when I was a kid. These are the pancakes I remember.
They were naturally sweet, enough so that I didn't need the maple syrup. Of course real maple syrup is a treat these days, so I used it for dipping anyway. This was a much lighter pancake than the ones at Joe's, with an airy texture and a soft outer layer that melted in my mouth. I missed the crispness of the other cake and the buttermilk tang. Even though the pancakes at Matt's are homemade, they taste awfully similar to the powdered kind my dad got from a box.
My delayed dining partner agreed that though "these are much fluffier and also delicious, the crisp texture and clear buttermilk taste of the Joe's pancake was more extraordinary."
The Winner: This one's a tough call. I preferred the light texture of the griddle cakes at Matt's Big Breakfast. But when it comes to taste and value, the flapjacks at Joe's Diner have the edge.