Sweet always sounds so good at 10 a.m. Mmm, French toast! But when you’re lying on the couch at 3 p.m. with the inevitable sugar-caffeine crash, you realize you’ve just sacrificed half the weekend to the syrup gods. Savory breakfast choices, however, force me to confront my egg issues head-on. That’s why I used to order a vast collection of sides whenever I went out for breakfast: hash browns, fruit, a waffle or the like, and always sausage—preferably a patty, with its large amount of crunchy brown surface area.
But all that strategizing, not to mention the collection of little plates I would amass and the annoyance of my unfortunate waitress, was kind of a drag. I drifted out of the habit of going out to breakfast—until I found Pancake Circus.
Pancake Circus is an institution, with an institutional color scheme to match (think little beige tiles plus mustard-yellow and orange accents). Its panoply of giant combination breakfasts obviates the need to choose between sweet and savory. Although it has a full complement of egg options, its focus is on the namesake pancake. Pancake Circus is cheap and cheerful, with a healthy dose of kitsch; it opens early and serves breakfast late; and the food, with a few exceptions, is pretty good.
Pancake Circus attracts a racially and culturally diverse crowd, from pierced and evidently hung-over hipsters to senior citizens dressed for church. (We saw a few tables with both; this must be one of few restaurants around that appeal equally to sweet grandmothers and their surly descendants.) The coffee isn’t particularly strong or good, but it is hot, and it appears within seconds.
So does the waitress, ready to take your order, but odds are you won’t be ready that fast. The menu offers a dizzying array of choices. One of the hardest is the question of the Big Top (with two pancakes) vs. the Circus Special (with four).
It might seem like two pancakes won’t be enough, but trust me: The Big Top is the way to go. My husband, who always can be relied upon to clean his plate, barely finished the salty-sweet slice of ham, the two eggs and the hash browns (which had an unpleasant artificial-grease aftertaste). You won’t need the extra two pancakes. They’re plate-sized, and even one will sit in your stomach all day, making lunch and dinner questionable.
Nevertheless, the pancakes are fab—as thick, fluffy and blond as a cheerleader’s coiffure, though, obviously, much more tasty. They’re good all by themselves, but they also soak up syrup admirably, for those who feel that the pancake is a mere sugar-delivery device.
If the choices start to confuse you, rely on your waitress, who knows the menu’s ins and outs. Ours advised us with cheery briskness on how to get the best deal. (We weren’t worried; everything was dirt-cheap anyway.) Ordering the waffle combo, for instance, means that you can get any kind of waffle, plus an egg and meat. I got the light, crisp pecan waffle, which would carry a surcharge if ordered à la carte. I also opted for the sausage patty, but I wished I’d gone for links. The greasy, peppery patty tasted all right, but it was hard to get past its wan appearance: thin and unappetizingly gray.
I hardly needed sausage anyway, because we greedily ordered biscuits and gravy, too. The white gravy was pasty and gloppy but strangely compelling (again, rescued by lots of pepper). The biscuits were unfortunately soft and cakey. I felt I really needed to be hung-over to appreciate them properly.
However, the décor made me glad I wasn’t hung over or, worse, drunk, because the clowns definitely would have freaked me out. The back of the bill, alarmingly, allows you to rate your dining experience via happy and sad clowns. The circus motif is continued by the pictures of grinning animals on the wall.
There’s also another strong theme: Lotto. I devoutly hope that the workers at the state lottery commission make the occasional pilgrimage to Pancake Circus, because it’s a shrine to all things Lotto. There is a sheaf of lottery tickets on the tables, approximately where a napkin dispenser might be at a less sporting establishment. There is a SuperLotto clock. There are televisions permanently tuned to the Lotto channel. There’s a Lotto machine, a kiosk and signs advertising jackpots won.
I’m one of those overeducated liberals who thinks the lottery is essentially a stupidity tax (not to mention a piss-poor way to fund schools). Still, I might have been tempted to buy a ticket if I hadn’t already won a very different sort of lottery: finding a breakfast spot I could enjoy, despite its foibles. Once a breakfast outcast, I’m on my way to being a Circus freak.