Mini Review: Japanese Pancake Balls

Moto Azabu Sushi Bar & Grill, in Marina Del Rey, CA has reopened under social distancing guidelines, and is the perfect place to have your temperature taken and wear a mask in between sunny, sushi bites. I’ve been here several times and this was the first time I noticed Japanese Pancake Balls on the menu. The pancake signal rang out, and I answered.

They were cute. Four perfectly browned pancake balls with veggies and octopus inside, topped with bonito, seaweed flakes, pickled ginger, mayo, and “special sauce.”

The balls tasted like pancakes, maybe slightly more fried. The octopus inside was tasty, and all the toppings worked well. We may never know what the special sauce contains, but the whole appetizer was flavorful with a savory, complex mouthfeel.

JUST THE STACKS – 9/10 TASTY STACKS

Overall Taste: Slightly sweet and definite pancake flavor, plus octopus bites.

Mouthfeel: A little bit crunchy, a little bit creamy, a lot of delicious.

Size: Four large pancake balls.

Presentation: Nice small-sized ingredient stacking on top.

Price: $6

Location: 517 W Washington Blvd 2nd Floor, Marina Del Rey, CA 90292

The Nighthawk Saga Continues: Takeout Celebration Stacks Part Two

 Obviously, I am going to keep eating Nighthawk pancakes. How could I not? 

Nighthawk and I have a delicious, yet complicated relationship. They were my first pancake loves of Los Angeles, and it’s hard to forget those early days of “super fucking delicious pancakes that elate your taste-buds in ways you might not have thought possible.” Then I had to end things due to poor pancake behavior. Then I decided to give them another chance and was pleasantly surprised, for the most part.

That brings us to May of 2020, in which we find ourselves in the midst of an actual pandemic, which is something we all used to read or watch disaster porn about (well I did), but never truly expect to live through. It also brings us to my annual celebration of another trip around the sun which called for a pancake celebration. 

My three person Quarantine Crew (who shall remain masked and anonymous) and I decided we would venture out to Nighthawk for takeout pancakes. Actually, I decided, because #birthdayrules. We were immediately shocked by the normalness of Venice Beach; people were biking in big groups and others were strolling mask-less without a care in the world. It was wild. We picked up our pancakes and to-go Candied Bacon Mary’s and got the hell out of there. 

I have acknowledged that takeout pancakes are going to have a tough time competing with the dining-in experience. So with that in mind, these sweet potato pancakes that don’t taste like sweet potatoes were excellent, but not outstanding.  They were perfectly fluffy, perfectly moist with an on-point mouthfeel, but something was missing.

Maybe it was the fried chicken, which was nearly inedible. Because this is an integral part of this dish, Nighthawk lost points on the TastyStacks scale (which has been adjusted to account for pandemic takeout times).  It was pretty sad, because Nighthawk used to have really fucking good fried chicken. 

The Candied Bacon Mary’s here are outstanding; they pack a spicy and exciting punch. I was thrilled we could get them for takeout. One person in my three person Quarantine Crew strongly disagreed with my taste buds on this and didn’t even want to finish his, which was a win-win for me.

Obviously, I am going to keep eating Nighthawk pancakes. How could I not? 

JUST THE STACKS – 8/10 TASTY STACKS

Overall Taste: Delicious stacks of almost-heaven.

Mouthfeel: Fluffy and moist. 

Size: Standard Nighthawk three-piler. 

Presentation: Great. How do people like my re-plating skills?

Price: $17

Location: 417 Washington Blvd, Venice, CA 90292

TastyStacks Turns One!

A brief rundown of my year in pancakes – pour yourself some syrup and enjoy.

For everyone who asks me what my favorite pancakes have been so far, I always mention Nighthawk, but with a caveat. Nighthawk was my absolute favorite, and also my first review. Then I had to break up with them, and it was not because of my shoeless date. Then Nighthawk redeemed themselves and has been back in my pancake cravings ever since, with only slight suspicion.

I ate a lot of mediocre pancakes, including an all-you-can-eat pancake date with a time limit. I had several really bad pancakes, some of which forced me to create the category “Not Pancakes.” I’ll save you the trouble of clicking that link and let you know that Erewhon makes raw vegan bullshit pancakes that are flat and circular shaped but are most definitely not pancakes. And Birch Benders, which makes one of my favorite protein pancake mixes, totally misses the mark on what makes a pancake with their dreadful “Keto Cups.” Hard pass.

I ate a ton of protein pancakes and pretended to be a runner. Just kidding, I have never pretended to be a runner, though I have finisher medals that say otherwise. You can let me have this humble running brag, as running is basically my kryptonite.

Finally, I had a lot of delicious pancakes and met a handsome pancake purist along the way (only excessive syrup allowed) who didn’t mind when I accidentally flung pancake pieces at him. I look forward to another year consuming delicious carbs and contemplating mouthfeel. And remember, you should never have trouble cutting pancakes.

Pre-Pandemic Pancakes: Home Run Happiness

Slightly sweet and full of impeccable pancake flavor, these shocked me with how good they were. 

In pre-pandemic days, when you could still eat inside restaurants and breathe in people’s faces, I had pancakes at Clutch and Coffee in Torrance, CA. These weren’t just pancakes though, they were really fucking good pancakes. Spoiler alert: I’m giving them a 10/10 on the TastyStacks scale. They are only the third restaurant ever to achieve this mouth-happy rating. The other two are Shoop’s and Nighthawk.

Back when you could travel in large groups I came here with an army of seven, including myself. Doesn’t that seem incredible now? And also maybe no longer allowed depending on where you live? Anyways, the point is we met at Clutch and Coffee at 8 am, which is exactly 10 minutes before it gets crowded.

I hate to admit this, but I wasn’t in the mood for pancakes that morning. Luckily, I’m dating someone who offered to get an order of pancakes as his breakfast so I could try them.  He went with the Buttermilk Pancakes but the menu also offers Strawberry, Blueberry, and Banana Cream Pancakes.

They arrived in a large fluffy stack of three with powdered sugar and butter on top. I took a bite before my date drowned them in syrup and was taken aback by how good they were. I also instantly regretted not getting my own plate.

They were perfectly fluffy. The mouthfeel was a luscious surprise of bliss, much like my date. They didn’t need syrup or any extra “foreign objects” and therefore easily scored the highest level on the naked test. Slightly sweet and full of impeccable pancake flavor, these shocked me with how good they were. 

More good news! Clutch and Coffee is still open for pickup and delivery. They are sadly outside my delivery range at the moment, but maybe they aren’t outside yours! 

JUST THE STACKS – 10/10 TASTY STACKS

Overall Taste: Surprisingly perfect happiness.

Mouthfeel: Deceptively delicious.

Size: Large and fluffy and beautiful.

Presentation: Three marvelous stacks with powdered sugar and a dollop of butter on top.

Price: $7.95 – $9.95

Location: 1321 El Prado Ave, Torrance, CA 90501

Country Touch Cafe: More Than a Touch Too Chewy

Immediately, I knew there would be trouble. You should never have trouble cutting a pancake.

Country Touch Cafe, located in Torrance, CA is an adorable hole-in-the-wall diner with delightfully decorated mugs and charming decor which include painted saws hanging from the wall. As lovable as this place is, it is not a good place to order pancakes. In fact, it is a bad place to order pancakes.

I came here on a date with the aforementioned blue-eyed space guy (who I guess was not terribly put off by my food flinging) and we both ordered omelettes. I was unable to resist trying their pancakes too, labeled only as “Hot Cakes” on the menu.

I tried to cut a piece of pancake with my fork, which should be easy to do, but was challenging. Immediately, I knew there would be trouble. You should never have trouble cutting a pancake. It’s a sign they will be chewy and unpleasant to eat.

I sampled a mouthful and it was bad. I tried them with butter and syrup and they were still bad. My date, who continued his disturbing pancake preferences by revealing he liked to “murder his pancakes with syrup” did so and also found them bad.

Honestly, I felt guilty because this place is so sweet. I think I ate half trying to convince myself they were not that bad. On the plus side, these weren’t as inedible as the infamous Mel’s, which is why they have a higher rating.

My date was kind about my pancake disappointment, and told me it was ok I didn’t like them. At one point, while trying to decide if his eyes were actually blue or some delicate variation I couldn’t quite put my finger on, I picked up the milk saucer instead of the syrup and proceeded to pour milk over the pancakes. Despite this extra moisture, the pancakes were still hard to cut.

If you’re in the area and craving standard diner food or maybe the Bul-Goki Omelette I saw on the menu, you should come here. I’d come back for the mugs, which I wanted to steal (but didn’t). Just don’t order the pancakes.

JUST THE STACKS – 2/10 TASTY STACKS

Overall Taste: Not good.

Mouthfeel: Bad.

Size: Large.

Presentation: Standard pancake on pancake.

Price: $5.95 – $8.45

Location: 3717 W 190th St, Torrance, CA 90504

Sage Plant Based Bistro: Cornbread Cakes

…if you’re going to carb up you might as well do it right.

Sage Plant Based Bistro in Culver City, CA was calling my name one random morning in the week between Christmas and New Years when time is in limbo and no one is quite sure what day it is. Despite being a hardcore meat lover, I’ve never missed it at this vegan restaurant. They have three locations in Southern California and one of the best meat-free taco salads I’ve ever had. But today was about pancakes.

I ordered the Cornbread Jalapeño Pancakes, served with the standard vegan butter and syrup, plus avocado, black beans, and rice. I also ordered hash browns because if you’re going to carb up you might as well do it right. These pancakes are gluten-free and soy-free too if you’re keeping track of those things. 

My first bite sans butter or syrup was good but a little plain. I added butter and an appropriate amount of syrup which easily elevated these to outstanding. Imagine perfectly moist cornbread in pancake form, lightly soaked in buttery syrup, spice, and deliciousness. 

The pancakes had tiny jalapeño flecks inside and a cute little kick to them. In case that’s not enough heat for someone (me), they also added three jalapeño slices on top. A sweet, spicy, melt-in-your-mouth cornbread pancake is hard to beat. Cafe Vida, also in Culver City, comes close but is missing that punch I can’t get enough of. 

The hash browns were similarly outstanding, perfectly crisped on top. I liked that the pancakes came with black beans, rice, and avocado. It felt like a complete (and completely decadent) meal. Go here and eat cornbread the way it should be eaten – as a pancake.

JUST THE STACKS – 9.5/10 TASTY STACKS

Overall Taste: Tasty as fuck. 

Mouthfeel: Melt-in-your-mouth happiness.

Size: Cute-sized.

Presentation: Three pancakes each topped with a delightful jalapeño slice.

Price: $16.00

Location: 4130 Sepulveda Blvd, Culver City, CA 90230

Loaded Cafe: A Burst of Berries

Some people, like my date, would argue that a syrup-moist pancake is the only way to go.

Despite swearing off eating pancakes with boys after my last failed pancake dating experience, I recently ended up at The Loaded Cafe in Lawndale, CA with a handsome blue-eyed boy who immediately impressed me with his knowledge of rockets as well as an interest in ordering lots of food.

The Loaded Cafe has six locations in Los Angeles and offers several hefty pancake options: Strawberry Banana, Strawberry Blueberry, New York Strawberry Cheesecake, and Chocolate Chip. 

I chose the Strawberry Blueberry Combo which comes with eggs, hash browns, and bacon or sausage. Places that offer pancake combos get an automatic extra point on the Tasty Stacks scale. 

My pancakes arrived in a cute stack of two topped with strawberries and a deflated mound of whipped cream. They were obviously fluffy and had a substantial amount of blueberries inside.

It was at this point that my date disclosed several disturbing pancake preferences that I tried to be open-minded about; namely that he didn’t like “foreign objects” in his pancakes. Not even chocolate chips, which is fucking egregious.  

He tried several bites, trying to excavate pancake pieces without berries. The blueberries, by the way, were excellent. They were cooked into the batter just about perfectly, which is hard to do without compromising consistency. I must have had an offended look on my face, because my date did try a loaded bite, complete with a strawberry on top. 

“I was right, that’s just unnatural.” 

Have you ever met someone so wrong about something it’s more fascinating than offensive? That’s what was happening here. 

We both agreed the pancakes had a rich buttery flavor, except when I agreed I did so by emphatically gesturing with my knife which had pancake pieces on it. Yes, they flew in my date’s direction and narrowly missed him. So maybe there will be another date. 

My only pancake criticism is that they did not pass the “naked” test with flying colors (few pancakes do) but were improved with syrup. Some people, like my date, would argue that a syrup-moist pancake is the only way to go.  Overall, these pancakes lived up to the their “loaded” namesake and were pretty tasty. They had a slightly crisped top, a high fluff factor, and an abundance of juicy berries.

JUST THE STACKS – 8/10 TASTY STACKS

Overall Taste: Solidly “good” and improved with syrup.

Mouthfeel: Buttery and fluffy and bursting with berries.

Size: Medium and appropriately sized for being part of a combo.

Presentation: A short stack of two pancakes, topped with powdered sugar, strawberries, and deflated whipped cream. 

Price: $11.99

Location: 15126-B Hawthorne Blvd, Lawndale, CA 90260

Grand Lux Cafe: Will Run for Pancakes

The Grand Lux Cafe, located in the The Venetian in Las Vegas, has an impressive breakfast menu. They are open 24 hours for all your voracious Vegas needs. Their sister restaurant is The Cheesecake Factory, if you would prefer a menu that reads like a book.

I came here with a group of friends from November Project West LA, who were kind enough to indulge my need for a place with pancakes. If you aren’t in Vegas for the thrill of walking around with an alcoholic beverage in your hand, it might as well be for your first half marathon with a group of ridiculously talented runners.

I ordered the Lemon Poppy Seed Pancakes, described as “So Delicious with Fresh Lemon and a Sprinkle of Poppy Seeds.” They are the only pancakes on the menu with a “So Delicious” description.

When they arrived, I could tell the fluff factor was going to be high. They came with sugar drizzle on top, a single strawberry, and a sad looking piece of mint.

I cut a Vegas sized bite and dove in. The fluff factor and taste was on point. They were a little on the sweet side but overall very good and hearty. If you need to load up on carbs before a nighttime road race or a 24 hour blackjack spree, this is a great choice.  They’re served with “maple butter” which is exactly what it sounds like. More pancake places should be combining butter and syrup.

My small criticism is that the sugar drizzle on top was unnecessary, and made the top pancake too sweet for me. Also, the single strawberry wasn’t fresh. Maybe it was for display purposes only (very Vegas), but it can’t be that hard to find a fresh fucking strawberry. 

These lemon poppy seed pancakes made my mouth and stomach very happy but you’ll probably need a nap after eating them.

JUST THE STACKS – 8/10 TASTY STACKS

Overall Taste: Strong lemon poppy flavor. A little too sweet with the sugar drizzle but otherwise lovely and luscious. 

Mouthfeel: Fluffy and happy.

Size: Large, these was a hefty three stack serving.

Presentation: Three griddled cakes topped with powdered sugar and the sugar drizzle I didn’t like, plus a sad strawberry and wilted mint.

Price: $11.50

Location: Vegas, baby.

Delicious Pizza: And Pancakes!

Fans of pizza, pancakes, and especially alliteration will appreciate this place.

How could you not immediately love a place named Delicious Pizza? They have two locations, one in Hollywood (or the Woo as I like to call it), and one in West Adams, CA.

Delicious Pizza has a variety of pizza, obviously. They also have pancakes, just one type: ricotta.

I ordered the short stack (plus a pizza) and my friendly pancake partner in crime ordered the large stack. After a minor miscommunication in which they brought out only two short stacks, which is definitely not enough pancake to go around, two more shortly arrived. All appeared uniform in fluff, size, and general delight.

Ricotta pancakes can be hard to get right. Sometimes they aren’t cooked enough, and sometimes you can’t even taste the ricotta. These were great. They were, in fact, delicious.

The menu describes them as whipped ricotta, which may be the secret to excellent ricotta pancakes. They had a high fluff factor and sweet tongue taste. I don’t think syrup was even needed and I haven’t had a pancake pass the naked test in a long time. Overall these were simple and indulgent, the perfect weekend or weekday treat.

Fans of pizza, pancakes, and especially alliteration will appreciate this place. I’m more likely to come back for the pancakes instead of the pizza, but I’m an East Coast pizza snob.

JUST THE STACKS – 9/10 TASTY STACKS

Overall Taste: Delicious, and I don’t think this word can be overused.

Mouthfeel: Sweet, fluffy happiness with a side of lusciousness, thanks to the ricotta.

Size: Medium-large, a short stack is probably not enough on its own.

Presentation: Two to four pancakes with a generous dusting of powdered sugar.

Price: $5.75 – $9.50

Locations:
5419 W Adams Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90016
6601 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028

Protein Pancake Series: Kodiak Cakes Cake-Off

Let’s say you’re already late for work but desperately need a pancake fix and just don’t have the fucking time to slice strawberries. Whip these fluffers up and wham-o!

I recently updated my dating profile to note I was only interested in dating men who were good eaters. Shockingly, this has not brought the boys running to me. While my next pancake date percolates, I had a very exciting pancake-off between three Kodiak Cakes Power Cake mixes: Strawberry Chocolate Chip, Cinnamon Oat, and Almond Poppy Seed. They all have 14 grams of protein per half cup serving, and I made these with unsweetened cashew milk instead of water. Let’s start eating!

Strawberry Chocolate Chip  
I was excited about all of these, but I was most excited for the Strawberry Chocolate Chip. This is one of my favorite pancake combinations and it’s hard to get the consistency right but it can be done. There’s a risk the strawberries end up in a mushy clump in the middle of the pancake, but this problem is avoided using a mix with just the strawberry flavor.

The batter smelled slightly like strawberry milk, which was pleasant. There are adorable mini chocolate chips in the mix! That was my favorite part. The taste was good but not outstanding. The strawberry flavor is a little off. Obviously, if you’re expecting real strawberries you’re going to be disappointed, but I think you’re better off adding real strawberries.

Tasty Stacks Rating: 7.5/10

Cinnamon Oat
The Cinnamon Oat batter both smelled and resembled oatmeal cookies when mixing. Surely this bodes well, right? That’s what I thought too. I hate to write this, but these were bad. We’re talking Mel’s Drive-In bad, except still better than that because I could easily chew them. I’m not sure what to do with this mix, the side of the box suggests I can make these into muffins, which might be better.

Tasty Stacks Rating: 2/10  

Almond Poppy Seed
The Almond Poppy Seed, which I have tried once before, remained my favorite of these three. The flavor reminds me of a subdued marzipan. The batter has tiny poppy seeds in the mix so this impacts the texture slightly, though not in a negative way for my mouthfeel. You should definitely put fresh strawberries on these. I don’t think they even need syrup, but of course they are excellent with (high quality) syrup. 

Tasty Stacks Rating: 10/10  

The Winner!
The clear winner of these three was the Almond Poppy Seed, followed by the Strawberry Chocolate Chip. The Strawberry one is growing on me to be honest. Let’s say you’re already late for work but desperately need a pancake fix and just don’t have the fucking time to slice strawberries. Whip these fluffers up and wham-o! Kodiak Cakes mixes make sturdy pancakes, so you can throw these in your bag and take them with you as you journey through your day.