1. What is a Flapjack Flip-off?
It's a contest to determine who makes the best plain buttermilk pancakes in town (no blueberries, bananas, buckwheat, chocolate chips, chewing gum, or any other additions allowed). The main criterion is the quality of pancake -- fluffy or flat; moist or dry; steamy hot or lukewarm. Secondary considerations may include price, service, ambiance, quality of butter and maple syrup, type of coffee poured, the weather, how good a night's sleep I've had, sheer whim, and a whole host of other complicated factors.
The Flip-off judge (me) doesn't take sole credit (or blame) for sparking the current reality-TV craze, but it is interesting to note the similarities: Unscripted flapjack contestants don't have a clue as to what's going to take place next (nor are they even aware they're participants), and in the end, the champion gets to take home a generous prize (the value of publicity generated by mere mention in this tournament is, as I've calmly pointed out to them, "inestimable").
2. Who is Mrs. Beeton?
She's a cookbook author who in 1909 became the first person to acknowledge in print that pancakes "must be regarded as somewhat beyond the capabilities of average digestive organs."
3. First or Fourth Annual? Depends on whether we include the first three contests, which I held in Miami-Dade County while I was a restaurant critic for Miami New Times. For those who may have missed these, a quick highlight reel:
2001: The S&S Restaurant near downtown Miami triumphed over "Original" and "International" pancake houses; mild but distressing bouts of gastrointestinal discomfort mercifully subsided after a week or two.
2002: Celebrated actor Kyle MacLachlan made a surprise appearance at the Biltmore Hotel judging; the Coral Gables landmark defeated Denny's and a quintet of diners; Flip-Off received flak for being swayed by the hotel's star power; wife noted that I looked "bloated."
2003: MacLachlan declined numerous invitations to return, his last refusal accompanied by a restraining order; South Miami's Deli Lane Cafe grabbed the pancake crown.
This year, I chose six diner/coffee shop-type places from Dania Beach to Boca Raton as unwitting competitors for the holy grail of griddle cakes. We began with our traditional Aunt Jemima/Pillsbury/Pepto-Bismol-sponsored Mrs. Beeton Flapjack Flip-Off Opening Cry: "Batter Up!"
The "I can't believe they're disqualified" award goes to Hollywood's Rainbo Café: The room, with its plush old banquettes, is comfy and cool. Cup o' joe was fine, service cheerful, flapjacks tender and steamy hot. The downside is that they were marred by an off-putting griddle taste and too much salt. And the maple-flavored syrup was "Sysco" brand (though, to be fair, none of this year's contestants offered real maple). Citing a little-known technicality, the judging committee disqualified Rainbo because of its use of I Can't Believe It's Not Butter with no other spread offered (such dramatic, unpredictable occurrences are what make reality contests like these so compelling). Rainbo's elimination was unfortunate, but without such a measure, we would be heading down that slippery slope toward the day when pancakes will be accompanied by the butter-flavored gunk squirted on movie popcorn. Price: $3.25 (no short stack!).
1909 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, 954-922-9767. Also located at 1200 S. Federal Hwy., Dania Beach, 954-920-6166.
The Most Overbeaten Batter Award goes to Boca Diner: Though it racked up points for sleekly pleasant diner environment, attentive service (including being one of only a few contestants to bring glasses of water to the table), piping hot coffee, and real butter, the pancakes were the stiffest and toughest we tasted. And the judges were clearly irked by having what the menu dubbed "warm syrup" turn out to be the same tabletop temperature as everywhere else. Prices: Short stack $2.50/ three stack $3.25.
2801 Federal Hwy., Boca Raton, 561-416-6060.
The What Can Possibly Be Worse Than Fake Maple Syrup Award goes to Grampa's Bakery & Restaurant: This sprawling, immensely likable diner/bakery has a fetching, old-timey, family-restaurant feel to it, and the pancakes were decently warm, decently puffy, and decently flavored; big bonus points awarded for complimentary plate of cheese danish with every breakfast entrée. When it comes to flapjack flip-offs, however, "decent" just doesn't stack up -- plus "breakfast syrup," which lacked even maple flavoring, is indecent, especially at these prices: Short stack $3.99/three stack $5.29.
17 SW First St., Dania Beach, 954-923-2163.
The Practice Doesn't Necessarily Make Perfect Award goes to Jack's Hollywood Diner: The pancake flavor was highly praiseworthy, especially if, like me, you like a strong infusion of vanilla. Still, you'd think that after more than 50 years in operation, Jack's would know the rule of thumb regarding height: If you can slip a pancake under the door, it's not fluffy enough. Whipped margarine instead of butter was another minus but balanced by authentically downtrodden ambiance and the lowest price per pancake: short stack $2.25/three stack $2.85.
1031 N. Federal Hwy., Hollywood, 954-929-2888. Open 24 hours.
The So Near and Yet So Lukewarm Award goes to Lester's Diner: We agree with the many loyal Lester-maniacs out there that this shiny landmark diner dishes tasty fare at terrific prices. We also offer mild praise for its honey-colored, vanilla-scented stack of griddle cakes, real butter served in a dish, and "famous 14-oz. cup of coffee" refilled with religious fervor by the veteran wait staff. Still, due to a slightly chewy texture and decidedly lukewarm temperature, Lester's stack fell just short of the gold. Prices: short stack $2.89/three stack $3.69.
250 W. State Rd. 84, Fort Lauderdale, 954-525-5641.
The Mrs. Beeton Trophy is awarded to... (drum roll, please)... the Miramar Diner: Moist, attractively streaked with golden-brown tie-dye striations, and emitting little puffs of steam, the pancakes at this admittedly grungy establishment possessed a clean, textbook flapjack flavor. Bonus points for colorful, convivial workers who are seemingly on personal terms with all the patrons. Secondary details that nearly derailed this diner from its coveted Beeton include use of margarine, a barely half-filled jar of maple-flavored syrup, and an unfulfilled menu promise of "free danish with any breakfast" (thanks to Grampa's, I've learned to appreciate the previously unfathomable concept of pastries paired with pancakes). Still, Miramar ruled this admittedly weak field (no one even offered a curled orange slice garnish or dusting of powdered sugar), and we offer our heartfelt congratulations -- along with a suggestion to install extra counter stools for the flock of flapjackphiles (meaning aficionados, not molesters, of pancakes) that will surely be seeking you out. Price: short stack $2.50/three stack $2.99.
3101 S. State Rd. 7, Hollywood, 954-964-9069.