At first glance, pancakes seem simple. A few basic ingredients are whipped together to make a batter that’s lightly cooked on a smooth, flat surface until they turn golden-brown — that’s it.
Yet, if you ask people how they like their pancakes, everyone has a different answer. Some prefer their pancakes fluffy; others want them cakey. Some want silver dollar-sized; others want them big as the plate. Some enjoy their pancakes plain; others load theirs with fruity toppings and sweet fillings.
And they’re not just for breakfast, either: There are savory pancakes, from scallion pancakes to arepas to latkes.
There are — seemingly — infinite pancake possibilities.
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The humble pancake is one of the few dishes that is almost universal, with variations found in culinary traditions around the world. When researchers found Ötzi the Iceman who had been frozen in the Italian Alps for over 5,300 years, they found something in his stomach that resembled a pancake. It was made of ground einkorn wheat with bits of charcoal in it, suggesting that it was cooked over an open fire.
Considering that humans have been cooking up pancakes since at least the Copper Age, we’ve had ample time to take the pancake across the globe and develop dishes that are as unique as the cultures from which they come.
Like a Rosetta Stone in the form of a pastry, the language of pancakes is always comforting, filling, and crowd-pleasing.
Here are some of the best pancakes in the Philly area, no matter what style is your favorite.
Renata’s Kitchen is the spot for a sweet stack of light and airy pancakes. “Great pancakes are fluffy and when you take a bite, it feels like eating a carb cloud,” says owner Kate Aiq. Though her husband, Yasser Aiq, is the one cranking out the pancakes, she says that the key to achieving the perfect consistency is to not overmix the batter — an old trick she picked up from her mom. The chocolate chip pancakes are a tasty throwback to post-slumber party breakfasts while the apple crumble pancakes made with brandied apple pie filling and drizzled in caramel and pecans is like eating a pie in pancake form. Or you can go fruity: The lemon poppy pancakes are topped with a creamy lemon-and-poppy-infused ricotta, while the blueberry pancakes come drenched in a homemade blueberry compote.
Red velvet pancakes with mascarpone cheese and apple pie banana pancakes tinged green with spirulina are among the vibrant stacks on Café La Maude’s menu. Chef and owner Nathalie Richan believes that great pancakes are a work of art. “They should be colorful and pretty like a bouquet of flowers,” says Richan. “I like to make my food bloom.” Not only are these pancakes aesthetically pleasing, they have just the right amount of sweetness. “You won’t need syrup with these pancakes,” says Richan.
Great [breakfast] pancakes are fluffy and when you take a bite it feels like eating a carb cloud.
Baked in an oven as opposed to fried on a skillet, the Dutch Baby pancake is a bit thicker than other pancakes. They can come plain with a dusting of powdered sugar or served with everything else you’d eat for breakfast already baked in. This spot has three Dutch Babies to choose from, each loaded with flavor. The sweet Dutch Baby is flavored with lemon and topped with powdered sugar while the savory Dutch Baby is bursting with bits of kielbasa and chopped scallions. There’s also a veggie option baked with spinach, red onion, tomato, and a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese.
Crepes are a thin French pancake, and lend themselves to both sweet and savory fillings, so they’re perfect for any meal, whether it’s breakfast, lunch, dinner, or dessert.
Though crepes are known for their French origins, the thin pancakes are a legacy of France’s rule in many of the countries they colonized, including Lebanon. At the West Philly Lebanese bakery, Manakeesh, the crepes come stuffed with a wide variety of sweet and savory fillings. The curry chicken crepes and the avocado and black bean crepes are savory options that are perfect for lunch or dinner; the banana split crepe served with Nutella, vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce, and whipped cream is like a full-blown sundae dessert.
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“Choice limited by your imagination” reads the chalkboard hanging above Profi’s Creperie in Reading Terminal Market. The Parisian-style creperie cranks out every kind of crepe from smoked salmon with cream cheese, dill, shallots, tomatoes, onions, and dijonaise to crepes stuffed with Nutella, banana, and strawberries, a favorite among customers. According to Ridi Tupa who has been working at Profi’s for five years, the key to great crepes is the ingredients that go inside. “All of the ingredients need to be fresh,” says Tupa. “Fresh fruits and fresh vegetables, never frozen. Everything’s made to order.”
When it comes to choosing a side at Honey’s Sit ‘N Eat, the latke reigns supreme. The thick wedge of coarsely grated potato doesn’t look like your average latke or potato pancake, but according to co-owner Ellen Mogell, it checks all the boxes of what a latke should be. “A good latke is crispy on the outside and creamy potato-y on the inside, of course,” says Mogell. “It’s got subtle onion flavor and kicks ass with both sweet, apple sauce, or ketchup even, and savory condiments — thick sour cream and hot sauce.” For the ultimate pancake party, grab the Breakfast Bomb, a breakfast pancake stuffed with scrambled eggs, cheese, and meat, along with the latke as your side.
The potato pancakes give you something to nosh on while strategizing how you’re going to summit Famous 4th Street Delicatessen’s mountainous sandwiches. Two perfectly crispy and golden potato pancakes are offered as a side to their famously overstuffed sandwiches or can be added to any order for $3. They’re the perfect accompaniment, adding a subtle, creamy richness to meals that are already indulgent and over the top.
The chewy, mildly fragrant scallion pancakes are a welcome break between heat-building bites of spicy dan dan noodles and Chongqing spicy chicken at EMei. “The unique taste of EMei’s scallion pancake is because our chef mixes two different flours together instead of the one all-purpose flour,” says owner Dan Tsao. Chef Master Zhao has been making the scallion pancakes at EMei for a decade, perfecting the art of developing thin layers of varying textures, ranging from lightly crispy on the outside to chewy on the inside. Be sure to try it with the sauce, a secret blend of tangy and sweet flavors that complement the scallion pancake’s subtle pungency.
The signature dish of long, hand-drawn noodles topped with crumbly bits of ground pork stewed in a mildly spicy and fermented sauce is usually what draws people to Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House. But given their skills in working with dough, the scallion pancakes are a great way to start your meal. The crispy, golden exterior gives way to a soft interior filled with larger-than-usual pieces of scallion, which lends the pancake’s fragrant flavor.
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At Sazon, the Venezuelan spot on Spring Garden, the savory corn pancakes are open like a clam shell and stuffed with seasoned meats, vegetables, beans, and cheese. Try the pernil arepas filled generously with juicy pulled pork roasted in a marinade of fresh orange juice wine, green olives, and capers. If you’re looking for a vegetarian option, you’ll find the La Guacamaya, a filling arepa brimming with silky grilled eggplant with mozzarella cheese and a tangy sun-dried tomato basil pesto. It’s also worth pointing out that arepas are naturally gluten-free.
The arepas at Que Ricas are light and subtle, making them the perfect vehicle for bold fillings like that of the Curvy Queen, which comes loaded with chicken and avocado salad, sweet plantains, and smoked Gouda. According to owner and chef Sahar Soleymani, a great arepa is made with a special brand of cornmeal used widely in South America with just a touch of salt, oil, and water. “It’s best served piping hot,” says Soleymani, who is making arepas just the way her Abuela makes it. “Crunchy on the outside, fluffy on the inside, and very subtly sweet from the cornmeal.” But there’s another pancake variety to check out: the cachapa. “It’s made from freshly grated sweet corn and tastes like a corn bread pancake,” says Soleymani. She says that a traditional cachapa is stuffed with a fresh white cheese and slathered in butter — she’ll make specialty cachapas as well, but only while they last.
“My mom used to have an okonomiyaki restaurant in Osaka, that’s how I learned how to make okonomiyaki,” says Seiko Dailey, the owner and chef of Ardmore’s Maido! A Marketplace of Japan. At Maido’s sit-in lunch counter, you can get an Osaka-style okonomiyaki (which means “how you like it, grilled” in Japanese) with pork, shrimp, vegetables, or all of those mixed together. The pancake is topped with an umami okonomiyaki sauce, sweet Kewpie mayonnaise, and a dusting of smoky bonito flakes. According to Dailey, an okonomiyaki with all three options — the pork, shrimp, and vegetables — is a diner favorite.
Doma is another spot serving up Osaka-style okonomiyaki, meaning all of the ingredients are mixed into the batter as opposed to the Hiroshima-style where the accoutrements are layered. Doma’s okonomiyaki is a savory pancake bomb filled with bacon and vegetables and topped with mayonnaise and bonito flakes. However, instead of okonomiyaki sauce, Doma uses tonkatsu sauce, a similar flavorful brown sauce that’s a little bit thinner. Okonomiyaki tends to be very filling, so if you don’t want to fill up on savory pancakes before getting to the sushi, try the takoyaki, bite-sized pancake puffs stuffed with octopus and topped with the same trio of savory toppings: tonkatsu sauce, mayonnaise, and bonito flakes.
About the writer:
Kae Lani Palmisano is the Emmy Award-Winning host of WHYY’s Check, Please! Philly and of the food history series Delishtory. She is also a food and travel writer, podcaster, recipe developer and home cook exploring the journey food takes to get to the plate.