OPH vs. IHOP
8037 15th Ave NW, 781-3344
Mon-Fri, 6:30 am-2:30 pm; Sat-Sun 7 am-3 pm.
International House of Pancakes
950 E Madison St, 322-4450
Open 24 hours every day.
This town is only big enough for one pancake house. Or so I declared when I chose to pit the recently opened Crown Hill branch of the Original Pancake House against the perpetual late-night standby, Capitol Hill's International House of Pancakes. As it turns out, it wasn't much of a fight. Not only is OPH, in fact, the original (its Portland flagship opened in 1953 and predates the first Toluca Lake IHOP by five years), but it bests IHOP in nearly every detail, right down to the coffee.
When Andrew and I ate at OPH one recent Monday morning, the customers in the knotty pine-paneled restaurant were decidedly, um, mature. There were plenty of permed gray coiffures, pink jogging suits that have seen no jogging, and Wilfred Brimley red suspenders. (The customer base may have something to do with the day we ate there--as we entered, a crew was hard at work on doubling the already generous waiting area. Come on a weekend, when breakfast is anointed "brunch," and you'll get a decidedly different experience.)
As suits a place with an older clientele, most of the flavors at OPH were a little muted--even the orange juice seemed low in acid--and, texturally, very little of the food would challenge a set of dentures (case in point: the corned beef hash ($5.95) isn't chunky like most, but a cohesive mush of meat, onions, and potatoes). Although I often gripe about too much flavor restraint in restaurants, it seems forgivable in a pancake house.
What's more, OPH pancakes were actually kind of feisty, with a strutting, toothsome texture that holds up to an accidental overdose of maple syrup. (Their bubbly structure owes something to the fact that many offerings are yeast-raised rather than baking soda- or powder-leavened like most pancakes.) Pigs in a blanket ($6.95), succulent sausages nestled in buttermilk pancakes, proved universally lovable, as one might expect. Buckwheat pancakes ($6.95) were a slightly more complex love--chestnut-brown and unadorned, they tasted, and I mean this as a compliment, a little bit like dirt. They stirred up memories of a silty sandbox somewhere in my past. They'd be extra-good with a dab of sour cream stolen from the potato pancakes.
The Dutch Baby ($8.95) is an OPH specialty that you should order for its name alone but also for its spectacular appearance. A baked pancake in the popover family, the Baby was basically an eggy batter poured into a piping-hot pan so that it puffed up wildly at the edges and slumped into a custardy hole towards the middle. It came plain, but I grabbed a little wedge of lemon sitting at the table and squeezed. It provided that little bit of tang I'd been missing all morning and made my Dutch Baby jump with flavor.
The IHOP off Broad-way, with its nicked Naugahyde booths and grafitti-tagged pay phone, has definitely seen tougher times than the OPH on Crown Hill. So too its servers and customers. During our meal a man at the booth across the way from us brandished a ketchup bottle threaten- ingly at a waitress. Andrew snatched up Gus' car seat protectively and the strapping, neck-tattooed busboy nervously refused to pass by the ketchup man. Our petite waitress brushed off the event, explaining that the man, a regular, occasionally has seizures of this sort and doesn't know what he is doing.
Although IHOP has diversified its menu from a pure griddlecake focus (look for a T-bone steak at night!), that morning a grizzled, ponytailed breakfast cook was still turning out pillowy and toasty-brown pancakes. Andrew stuck with his pigs in a blanket ($6.49)--"The pigs aren't as good, the blankets are about the same." I actually disagreed: While he was right that the sausages were leathery and salty, the flapjacks had less appealing spring than their cross-town OPH rivals.
My fruit pancakes ($6.79) came "smothered" in apple-cinnamon topping--and that menu phrasing was right: They were asphyxiated in a topping as mucilaginous as bad Chinese food. Disappointed, I played with the sticky sauce dispensers on the table: a murky blueberry-flavored syrup that was only slightly less awful than the strawberry syrup that fluoresced on my plate. Even the bacon ($2.59) at IHOP--thin sliced and fried into contorted crisps--is a distant second to OPH's fat and smoky rashers.
In the battle of the pancake houses, there is only one true contender. If only it were open 24 hours a day.