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

Bru’s Wiffle: The Inaugural Waffle Post

Back in early March, when it was still fun to watch the movie Contagion and go to crowded restaurants, I ate at Bru’s Wiffle in Marina Del Rey. Bru’s Wiffle specializes in waffles, making this the very first TastyStacks waffle review.

The waffle combinations here are wild. I don’t know how anyone can make a decision or expect to not be in a food coma. The full menu is worth reading if you are into dessert porn. In brief, they serve every kind of sweet or savory waffle explosion: Banana Split, Red Velvet, Churro, the King (peanut butter, banana, bacon), Green Salsa, Golden Goat, Huevos Rancheros, and the list goes on. 

The savory waffle combinations all come with fried chicken. If you’re thinking the “Chicken on Fire”  waffle that comes with onions, peppers, jalapenos, cheese, “blazing sauce,” and fried chicken might be too much, you would be correct. I was tempted to try it because of the spice implication. For some reason, the waitress asked if I wanted to add eggs to this already monstrous combination and I said yes.

Our waffles arrived and all looked like they were on steroids, with the exception of my date’s waffle. Regular readers will remember him from his “no foreign objects” preferences.  Holding true to this, he went with the basic Chicken and Waffles combo, which is the way to go.

The fried chicken and waffles on their own are both very good. They don’t need to be drowned with toppings. It’s too much for even the most sturdy waffle to handle. There are only so many toppings you can dump on before you start asking “what’s the point?

The Chicken on Fire waffle combination was disappointingly not spicy. There was too much sauce which was a turn off. There was also too much cheese, which is not something people usually complain about. All in all, I wished I had gotten the basic Chicken and Waffle combo (“Dwight’s Special). It was fun to order a truly egregiously topped waffle, but the flavors didn’t hold up, it was overwhelming and not in a delicious way.

JUST THE STACKS – 6.5/10 TASTY STACKS

Overall Taste: The score is mainly for the basic chicken & waffles, which are very good on their own. Points were subtracted because of the excessive ingredient dumping on most of the other waffles and false spice advertising. 

Mouthfeel: Basic chicken & waffles had as close to a perfect mouthfeel as you can get with waffles and the fried chicken was well done and crispy.

Size: Massive. My order veered into egregious and overwhelming territory.

Presentation: Fun!

Price: $12.95 – $18.95

Location: 3105 Washington Blvd, Marina Del Rey, CA 90292

Keto Cakes: Birch Benders Keto Pancake Mix

These are not ideal for travel. My pancake nearly fell apart when I tried to take a photo of it next to my face.

Keto is IN and carbs are OUT. At least that’s the message I get from the Keto Corner at Erewhon in Venice, CA. Keto muffins! Keto cookies! Keto bread! All the delicious carbs you want to eat but can’t but now you CAN. Including, you guessed it, pancakes!

I am not a nutritionist (obviously) and I don’t understand how food high in fat and cholesterol is better for you than food high in delicious carbs. But in the name of keto pancake research, I tried Birch Benders Keto Pancake mix. I chose Birch Benders because they have very fucking tasty pancake mixes that have never led me astray. 

Mix, water, skillet, heat, and bam! Keto pancakes!

The first thing I noticed was a salty flavor, which was confusing. Perhaps this is to make up for the taste that went missing when the carbs took a hike. These weren’t as fluffy as full on carb pancakes either. They didn’t have that decadent buttermilk flavor that almost melts in your mouth. 

The second thing I noticed was that this was a flimsy flapjack. These are not ideal for travel. My pancake nearly fell apart when I tried to take a photo of it next to my face. This did not substantially impact my rating, but I do appreciate a sturdy stack with some heft. 

Overall these weren’t bad, and are probably a decent choice if you’re riding the keto wave, but I recommend adding chocolate chips. In the future, I don’t know that I’d choose the 11 grams of fat and 40% of my daily cholesterol intake over the 26 grams of carbs in my regular Birch Benders Protein Mix.

JUST THE STACKS – 6.5/10 TASTY STACKS  

Overall Taste: Not bad, not great. Almost pleasant.

Mouthfeel:  Slightly salty, light, and delicate. Like a cloud.

Protein per serving:  9g per 1/2 cup.

Price:  $5.99 – $8.99 for 16 oz.

Available at: So many places! Also Amazon.

Nighthawk: I Love You but I’m Not in Love with You

This was not the meaty, fluffy stack of heaven I had come to expect. In fact, there was no fluff factor to talk about at all.

I first wrote about Nighthawk: Breakfast Bar in Venice here. I extolled their pancakes, and described the mouthfeel as “exploding pleasure”. No other place has achieved a 10/10 on the Tasty Stacks scale yet. I kept going back because they were dependably delectable on all fronts. Nighthawk could do no wrong with their pancakes in my eyes. 

Well, nothing lasts forever. Not even pancakes.

I came here most recently on a first date. My date wasn’t wearing shoes. Instead, he was wearing a thin strip of cloth, that at a glance, could pass for weird sandals. This was so he would still be served at restaurants, he explained. He was also a vegetarian, which I try to be open-minded about as a card-carrying meat eater.

I ordered my usual – the Big Bird and Short Stack – which is three sweet potato pancakes (that taste less like sweet potatoes and more like “heaven in cooked batter form“) topped with fried chicken.

Of course, I had raved about the pancakes here. My date asked if he could have some and I hesitated. Share my Nighthawk pancakes? I barely knew this person. I agreed because I didn’t want to seem completely pancake crazy on the first date. I like to save that for at least the second date.   

The pancakes arrived and I could tell immediately something was off. They looked thin, like someone had squished all the joy out of them. This was not the meaty, fluffy stack of heaven I had come to expect. In fact, there was no fluff factor to talk about at all. Already anguished, I took a bite sans butter or syrup. The flavor was still there, kind of, but it just wasn’t the same. I felt as deflated as the pancakes. 

The chicken was similarly flattened into thinner than usual cutlets. There was a fried coating, but it wasn’t crispy, which is a sin in the fried chicken world. Even worse, there was very little flavor. 

I gave my date a sizable pancake piece, and I wonder if this was where things went south. These were not up to the standards I had talked about. Maybe he thought I didn’t know what a good pancake was. 

The highlight of the meal was the cookie dough butter. It’s hard to go wrong with butter but this stuff is fucking outstanding. I lathered it on my un-fluffy pancakes. They needed a boost and this helped. 

I would have taken photos of this sad stack, but didn’t want to blow my undercover pancake cover on the first date. Not that it mattered. Though I was fond of my humorous and shoe-less date, he texted me the next day that he wasn’t interested. I didn’t even get a chance to ask him his pancake opinion. I belatedly realized this was because he had been talking so much that I let him run away with the conversation which devolved into backhanded novel writing bragging and a long Coachella acid story (his).

Most importantly, will I go back to Nighthawk? Maybe. But I’m not sure my heart can take another un-fluffy mediocre pancake stack from here. 

JUST THE STACKS – 7/10 TASTY STACKS

Overall Taste: Disappointing, but not bad.

Mouthfeel: Something was missing. That something was the perfect pancake fluff that used to be here.

Size: The size of these was still ok, but they were so flattened they seemed much smaller.

Presentation: A very flat stack of three pancakes, topped with two very flat pieces of fried chicken. 

Price: $17 (Expensive for the unremarkable quality.)

Location: 417 Washington Blvd, Venice, CA 90292

Erewhon: Are These Even Pancakes?


Pancakes should bring joy and delight, and maybe evoke pleasant memories of smiley-face chocolate chip pancakes.

I have been irritated by these pancakes ever since Erewhon started selling them. They’re tiny. They cost $10.95 and don’t even have any gluten in them. Gluten is delicious but I understand some people can’t or won’t eat it. 

I gave these pancakes the benefit of the doubt. I put them on a real plate and heated them up, but not too much, because I didn’t want them to lose their “raw” integrity. I tried to eat them with an open mind and paired them with a good cup of coffee.

I felt like I was eating mashed up fruit & nuts sculpted into a circular shape. They tasted exactly like their ingredients: pecan, cashew, banana, apple juice, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, Himalayan salt, red maca. This wasn’t necessarily bad, but it did not delight my taste-buds. I felt cheated out of a pancake experience.

These mini “pancakes” come with syrup and a coconut cream spread. The coconut cream was pretty tasty and added an interesting layer of sweetness but didn’t do much to improve my opinion. The syrup was a nice touch but didn’t make me feel like I was eating pancakes. 

Do these even meet the definition of a pancake? 

Merriam-Webster defines a pancake as “a flat cake made of thin batter and cooked (as on a griddle) on both sides.” I don’t mean to be a pancake militant, but according to this definition and my gut feeling, these aren’t pancakes. Pancakes should bring joy and delight, and maybe evoke pleasant memories of smiley-face chocolate chip pancakes. These did none of that for me.

If I wanted an expensive fruit nut mush snack, I might get these again, but I doubt it. I think there are better vegan, gluten-free pancake options out there. But if you are desperately craving pancakes and you pretend real fucking hard, these might work for you.

Just the Stacks – 2/10 Tasty Stacks 

Overall Taste: These had a definite health bar taste to them.

Mouthfeel: Sweet and mushy, but the coconut cream had a very nice texture to it.

Size: Perfect for a dollhouse.  

Presentation: Not the most aesthetically pleasing.

Price: $10.95

Location:  585 Venice Blvd, Venice, CA 90291

C&O Trattoria: Go With the Garlic Knots

So many things are pretentious in Venice, but also delicious, so this is a poor battle to wage.

I came to C&O Trattoria in Venice Beach on a date with a guy who was a twin, which was maybe the most interesting thing about him. He first suggested Great White, which is also blocks from the beach, and at the time had recently opened and was super popular. I’ve still never been; it’s probably still super popular. I suspected we wouldn’t be able to get a seat anywhere on a weekend morning, but since I had recently moved and he should have done his homework better, I agreed to meet there. It was packed. I suggested we look elsewhere, and led him to Nighthawk, despite knowing that would be packed too. I’ve stopped by Nighthawk a few times without a reservation on a weekend morning and it’s never worked out for me, but I like to be hopeful.

Image via TastyStacks.

We took a look at the Nighthawk menu (or I pretended to, knowing it already), but he vetoed the place after reading the “Duck, Duck, Goose” dish (Fois gras). He was a sometime vegetarian so I thought that was the issue, but he commented the place was a little too “pretentious.” I found this incredulous coming from someone who had first picked Great White. So many things are pretentious in Venice, but also delicious, so this is a poor battle to wage.

Increasingly hungry, we picked C&O Trattoria (yes, an Italian restaurant), on a strip a block away from the beach, and very touristy. I was not expecting great pancakes. I was surprised they even served pancakes but decided that was one of the safest options. Of their 3247 Yelp reviews, there are two that mention the word pancake, and I disagree with both of them. Perhaps the problem was that we didn’t get a side of garlic knots? The pancakes were okay. They were structurally sound and topped with slices of strawberries and bananas which was nice, but lazy looking. This isn’t even a breakfast place though, they are just capitalizing on all the tourists hanging out by the beach desperate for weekend brunch. Anyway, my date ordered the crêpes and didn’t like them, but why would anyone order crêpes from a place like this?

Just the Stacks – 5/10 Tasty Stacks

Image via TastyStacks.

Overall Taste: Fine, unremarkable.

Mouthfeel: Mediocre.

Size: Average.

Presentation: Simple, they tried to make the fruit on top look somewhat nice, but it looked slightly sad to me. Maybe I just really wanted Nighthawk?

Price: $11 for three pancakes.

Location: 31 Washington Blvd, Marina Del Rey, CA 90292

Nighthawk: Breakfast Bar


I admit I was suspicious of sweet potato pancakes because I want my pancakes to taste like pancakes, not sweet potatoes.

Image via TastyStacks.

I first ate at Nighthawk: Breakfast Bar on a trip to Venice in 2016, before I moved there in 2018, and ended up living a mile away from it. I remember my dad telling me about Nighthawk on the phone after it had just opened, he animatedly described a delicious burger with a fried egg on it. Looking at the menu in person, I was instantly sold on the description of the Big Bird and Short Stack: “buttermilk fried chicken, sweet potato pancakes, cookie dough butter, apple-cinnamon gastrique, scallions, maple syrup.” I can tell you that this description and the accessory ingredients have changed ever so slightly over the years but the pancakes are always fucking delicious. I admit I was suspicious of sweet potato pancakes because I want my pancakes to taste like pancakes, not sweet potatoes. I am happy to report these pancakes taste nothing like sweet potatoes. I’m not even convinced that’s an ingredient they really use. If you are looking for pancakes that have a sweet potato flavor you better go elsewhere. But if you are looking for super fucking delicious pancakes that elate your taste-buds in ways you might not have thought possible, Nighthawk is your spot. They hit a 10 on every category.

These pancakes arrive in a delightfully fluffy stack of three, topped with fried chicken. The fried chicken is not to be overlooked. I usually need to order a second breakfast dish to get my protein in, but Nighthawk has done the work for me. I’ve been on several dates here, and while none of the guys have been super savory, the pancakes never let me down. I won’t bore you with the dating duds but I will say that on one of my dates the guy placed a second order of the Big Bird and Shortstack, which instantly impressed me. I like men who can eat. I had to fight him for some of the second order of pancakes though. For some reason they’ve started garnishing this dish with scallions, which I find questionable. Perhaps it’s for presentation and the Instagram foodie crowd. Despite this minor critique, these pancakes get a 10/10 on the Tasty Stacks rating. I suggest going here on an off hour, or at least not during weekend brunch. It’s possible one of the reasons I moved here from Boston was to be closer to Nighthawk and their pancakes.

Just the Stacks – 10/10 Tasty Stacks

Image via TastyStacks.

Overall Taste: Heaven in cooked batter form.

Mouthfeel: Exploding pleasure.

Size: Like Goldilocks finding the perfect chair or bowl of oatmeal, these are just the right size.

Presentation: A beautiful stack of three pancakes, topped with two pieces of fried chicken, and for some reason scallions.

Price: $17 (A small price to pay for perfection.)

Location: 417 Washington Blvd, Venice, CA 90292