The secret is the batter.
The Original Pancake House in Laguna Hills may be just a franchise in a national chain, but it and the two other Orange County branches I've eaten at can count themselves among the best pancake houses in the state.
The menu tells us the company dates to 1953. That's when two Portland-based entrepreneurs, Les Highet and Erma Hueneke, created a pancake recipe using only "93 score butter, pure whipping cream, fresh grade AA eggs, hard wheat unbleached flour and sourdough yeast."
Bravo to that. But until recently, diners had to go to Anaheim or Yorba Linda to eat at an Original Pancake House.
Enter Jerry and Ana Finkelstein, the saintly pair who have brought one of these restaurants to South County (and another to Redondo Beach, as of last year). Now, on any weekend morning--the peak time for a pancake house--expect lines snaking out the door at the Laguna Hills restaurant and pure frenzy on the inside.
One drizzly Sunday morning, we finally got our table after a 20-minute wait. It wasn't a booth as we requested, but a slippery-topped table, smack in the middle of the action.
In a jiffy we were served boiling-hot coffee and oversized thimbles of fresh-squeezed orange juice, brought by a team of friendly, surprisingly calm waitresses. Meanwhile, over at the next table, a real-life image of the kid from hell in the latest Chevy Chase movie was splattering his dad's Polo shirt with syrup.
The rest of the breakfast wouldn't come along until much later. There's a healthy waiting time at the Original Pancake House if you want specialty items, because everything is cooked to order. The German pancake, for instance, takes a solid 15 minutes, and the wait may be even longer for the trademark apple pancake, a gooey, majestic masterpiece of apples, cinnamon-sugar glaze and eggy, flannel-textured dough.
Texture is a big selling point here. Take the '49er flapjacks: three chewy, crepe-like rounds, which have perhaps the strongest sourdough flavor in the house. These cakes magically stretch like the Ethiopian millet flat-bread called injera , but they practically melt once you get them in your mouth.
The waffles are crisp and airy, and I never come to the Original Pancake House without ordering one--preferably the kind with fresh-toasted pecans gently mixed into the batter. A Hawaii-born South County friend of mine is so keen on the coconut waffle, which comes in a citrus-tinged tropical syrup, that she actually brings in crushed macadamia nuts to sprinkle on it.
That tropical syrup raises my only gripe with this place: It doesn't offer real maple syrup with these creations. The franchise doesn't approve of real maple syrup, possibly for reasons relating to chain-wide uniformity and family pricing policies. Instead, there's a company-approved maple-flavored syrup, and it's the only item that falls short of excellent. Of course, hard-core devotees of real maple are free to bring the high-priced syrup if they want, and you sometimes see people with their own bottles.
The oven-baked German pancake, a golden-edged thing shaped like an upside-down sombrero, is one that does beautifully without any syrup at all. Dinah's, on Sepulveda Boulevard just north of LAX, is the L.A. restaurant best known for German pancakes. But Dinah's version is a poor relation of the butter and egg-yolk richness of the Original Pancake House model. Sprinkle powdered sugar in the center, then squeeze some lemon juice around the sides. A smaller edition of the same pancake, called a Dutch Baby, is every bit as good.
The apple pancake, which fills a large plate and is five times the height of an ordinary pancake, is meant to be shared. The batter is baked, so it comes out eggier and puffier than a pancake fried on a griddle. When it's partly cooked, the top is covered with apple slices and a thick cinnamon glaze, which slowly caramelizes into a crackly crunch.
Calories? Oh, I'm guessing 1,800. Don't expect Richard Simmons to be eating one at the next table.
More calorific splendor awaits. The ultra-thin potato pancakes, golden and diaphanous toward the edges, seem almost sensible and nutritious . . . until you give them a turn with the Cointreau-flavored sour cream. You can order them a la carte or with a breakfast specialty called eggs Michael, which combines a toasted English muffin, patty sausage, poached eggs and a rich sherry mushroom sauce.
The huge omelets are served with three buttermilk pancakes (or toast, which for once is an eccentric choice). There are also dishes like homemade corned beef hash, kosher salami with scrambled eggs, French toast and the menu's most expensive item, steak and eggs, a hearty alternative for those who don't do dough.
As for the sides: Thick slab bacon comes four smoky, flavorful strips to an order. The patty sausage is grainy and crumbly, and a leaner choice than the link sausage. Pancake toppings include lingonberries imported from Sweden, blueberries from the Pacific Northwest, a thick, cinnamon-infused applesauce and cherries simmered in Kijafa liqueur.
They're all fine. But when you walk out the door, it will be that yeasty goodness of the pancakes that ends up long on your palate--the sourdough tang that makes most other pancakes seem like mere filler.
The Original Pancake House is inexpensive. Pancakes and egg dishes are $3.75 to $7.95.
* THE ORIGINAL PANCAKE HOUSE
* 26591 Moulton Parkway, Laguna Hills.
* (714) 643-8591.
* Breakfast and lunch daily, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
* MasterCard and Visa.