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The pancake tour Sizing up the stacks and all the sweet trimmings

Lots of people in Western New York find their day just isn't complete without a heaping helping of pancakes.

Hot off the griddle, dripping with butter and syrup or dressed up with fruit and whipped cream, they make a meal everybody can agree on.

Who likes 'em? College students looking for a cheap late-night fill-up. Seniors seeking a leisurely morning treat. Picky babies trying out finger-friendly food. Big families looking to please a crowd.

"Pancakes are universally loved," says Marie Simmons, a columnist at Bon Appetit magazine and the author of "Pancakes A to Z."

So maybe a pancake isn't the most nutritionally stellar dish around. Still, it's not the worst one out there, either -- especially not if you pair it with fruit, yogurt, or other healthy sides.

"There are lots of different ways to make them more healthful," says Simmons. "Another idea might be to use homemade fruit syrup instead of sugary imitation maple syrup."

Now on to the big question: Where -- in the great vista of Western New York dining spots -- can the best flapjacks be found?

Ask around and you'll hear fierce debate. Lots of people swear by chain restaurants for their pancakes: IHOP, the Original Pancake House, Denny's. Others insist that a true pancake is only available at a mom-and-pop diner -- of which Buffalo and its suburbs boast hundreds.

There are, of course, too many wonderful pancakes out there to really choose -- and pancake tastes are subjective, after all. But we set out to find some of the tastiest pancakes, anyway. We ate our way through stacks of flapjacks for breakfast and lunch -- even dinner -- for more than a week straight.

The timing is perfect: this is maple sugaring season in Western New York, and sweet fresh maple syrup is now available.

With that, here are the results of our highly informal pancake tasting tour.

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What: The Original Pancake House

Where: 3019 Union Road, Orchard Park; 2075 Niagara Falls Blvd., Amherst; 5479 Main St., Williamsville.

What to get: Dutch Baby; apple pancake; peanut-butter pancakes.
When to go: Weekend mornings, for the thrill of a big, hungry crowd.

How much $$: About as much as a sandwich place. The Dutch Baby runs upwards of $8. Most plates in the $6 to $8 range.

The buzz: A Western New York tradition for many families, the Original Pancake House -- in three locations -- is the place to be on Saturday and Sunday mornings. "The best pancakes," boasts owner Roman Jewula, and you can't really argue with him. Little kids, grandmas and grandpas, cousins -- this place gets everybody out of bed on the weekends.

So yes, you'll probably wait for a table, but waiting in air softly scented with apples, bacon and waffle batter? That's not so bad after all. The Dutch Baby and the Apple Pancake are both classics here, and, though not cheap by pancake standards, they're worth the price. The Dutch Baby comes out on a platter looking like a giant yellow Bundt cake -- daunting. They serve it with fresh sliced strawberries, syrup and powdered sugar. Huge, but it's amazing how fast this one disappears.

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What: Charlie's Diner

Where: 510 Main St., East Aurora

What to get: Plain pancakes.

When to go: Breakfast served all day; try lunch or an early dinner and then stroll quaint East Aurora.

How much $$: $3.29 for three filling pancakes, five cakes for $5.29.

The buzz: Charlie's pancakes were different than the others we tasted, in a good way -- like pancakes at a hometown diner should be. They were dense and eggy, yellowish rather than pale, with a darkish crust. They were delicious, and even better with butter on top. Our youngest dining companions, two little ones aged 1 and 3, wolfed them down and pointed for more.

Charlie's is the real diner deal: friendly but busy staff, tons of choices, everything homemade and filling. Have the pancakes for breakfast here and you're set until dinner.

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What: Denny's

Where: 5092 Camp Road, Hamburg (and eight other locations in the Buffalo area).

What to get: Fruit-filled pancakes.

When to go: Anytime! That's the point of a chain like Denny's.

How much $$: Stack of 3 plain pancakes runs $3.69, add fruit and whipped cream for 99 cents. The fruit-filled pancakes are $6 for a huge platter.

The buzz: Chain or no chain, you've just got to love a place like Denny's. The coffee is hot, the waitresses are cheerful, and the pancakes are picture-perfect. Seriously, the ones on our plate looked just as good as the photo on the menu.

Pancakes here are an around-the-clock phenomenon. You'll find seniors at midmorning, families for lunch and dinner, teenagers in the evening, and the post-bar college crowd in the wee hours. The decor is a bit scary, teal and orange with fluorescent lighting, but you know what? Sometimes all you want is that picture-perfect stack of cakes, and that's OK.

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What: Pano's

Where: 1081 Elmwood Ave.

What to get: Walnut-and-spice pancakes; pancakes with fresh strawberries.

When to go: Pancakes are served all day, every day. Pano's is especially fun after dark, when you can revel in the Elmwood nightlife.

How much $$: Pancake platters in the $5 to $6 range.

The buzz: Hip little Pano's turns a crowd all day, and you're likely to find a different mix of college students, politicians, and artsy types depending on when you go. At our visit, a group of high school students at a nearby table was, inexplicably, wearing togas. "I don't know why," shrugged Joey, our waiter, who didn't seem to think much amiss.

But never mind. Order the pancakes and you'll get a generous plate of solidly good ones, with fresh accompaniments. The strawberries and whipped cream (Cool Whippy, but is that bad?) on one stack was more than generous, and the walnut pancakes had a spicy tang and homemade texture.

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What: International House of Pancakes

Where: 4003 Maple Road, Amherst; 50 Thruway Plaza, Cheektowaga.

What to get: Original buttermilk pancakes; "Harvest Grain 'n Nut" pancakes.

When to go: Very early or very late for the best people-watching.

How much $$: A short stack of plain cakes is $3.69. Get fancier and you can pay up to $6.

The buzz: Oh, the humanity. IHOP is a great place to sit and watch the world go by, with a nice platter of carbs in front of you. College kids at the Maple Road site, seniors and mall shoppers at the Cheektowaga location -- the view is fascinating.

But make no mistake, this place means business when it comes to pancakes. A heavy-duty rack of giant bottles of syrups and fruit sauces awaits you on the table. And instead of "fries with that?," here the waitress will pipe up with "pancakes with that?" -- even if you're ordering from another section of the menu.

We were skeptical, never having been to an IHOP before. But it was darn good breakfast food, even at lunchtime when we stopped in. We'll be back for more of the hearty, healthy pancakes made with whole grains, oats, almonds and English walnuts.

***

What: Tom's Diner

Where: 11 Main St., Lockport.

What to get: Small stack of plain pancakes.

When to go: The diner opens at 7 a.m., but breakfast is available all day.

How much $$: Ultra cheap, Tom's will cost you just $2.50 for a small plate of pancakes -- the best deal we found.

The buzz: Very tasty homemade pancakes in this cozy little street-corner diner in downtown Lockport, which is so small you might miss it: just five booths, three tables, and seven stools at the counter. The pancakes -- the "small" stack of two plate-sized pancakes is more than enough -- come to the table as gloriously pale disks, pocked with batter bubbles, their lacy edges crisp, dusted with powdered sugar.

A real find, this place, and even better than the food is the hometown appeal. A waitress, waving us to a table, tells us not to worry about the jacket thrown over one of the chairs -- "That's just Tom's," she says. The magazine rack boasts old Lockport newspapers and vintage magazines -- we read a story about Dinah Shore in a tattered 1941 copy of Liberty magazine while we ate -- and a battered RC Cola cooler sits near the door. Tom himself circulates the tiny digs to make sure everyone's happy.

And you know what? We were.

e-mail: cvogel@buffnews.com

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>Hot off the (home) griddle

Got a craving for pancakes but can't get out for brunch this weekend? Never fear.

The solution is a stack of homemade cakes -- you'd be surprised how satisfying they are, as a way to celebrate your weekend.

Below is a basic recipe for a simple pancake. Then, there's a more exotic recipe for a fancier stack of 'jacks. Get out that syrup bottle, grease up the skillet, and dig in!

Both recipes are from Marie Simmons' "Pancakes A to Z" cookbook.

>Five Ingredient Pancakes

1 cup milk

3 tablespoons salted butter

1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

2 large eggs

In a small saucepan, heat the milk and butter until the butter is melted; cool. Sift the flour and baking powder into a large bowl. In a smaller bowl, whisk the eggs until blended; add the cooled milk mixture. Stir the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients until blended. Do not overmix.

Heat a large nonstick griddle or skillet over medium heat until hot enough to sizzle a drop of water. Brush with a thin film of vegetable oil, or spray with nonstick cooking spray. For each pancake, pour a scant 1/4 cup batter onto the griddle. Turn heat to medium-low. Cook until the tops are covered with small bubbles and the bottoms are lightly browned. Carefully turn and lightly brown the other side. Repeat with the remaining batter.

Slather with softened butter and drizzle with warm maple syrup or warmed fruit jam.

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>Apple Cottage Cheese Pancakes

1 cup low-fat cottage cheese

3 large eggs, separated

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup peeled, cored and chopped apple

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

In a large bowl, combine the cottage cheese, egg yolks, butter and vanilla. Stir to blend. Add the apple, flour, sugar and salt and stir to combine. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Gently fold into the batter until blended.

Heat a large nonstick griddle or skillet over medium heat. Follow cooking instructions in step 2 of the previous recipe.

Sprinkle warm pancakes with Cinnamon Sugar and serve with warm applesauce.

For Cinnamon Sugar: Combine 1/2 cup sugar and 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon in a bowl. Stir to blend.

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