Good Gimmick 

The Best Cooks at Slappy Cakes Are Kids

WHEN I WAS A KID, I loved to go to Casa Bonita outside of Denver, Colorado. It boasted a three-story waterfall, cliff divers, caves, and totally inedible Mexican "food." I didn't care. I loved the place. As an adult I've learned to approach theme restaurants with caution. Often, they're all gimmick and no substance. But on rare occasions, the gimmick trumps the food.

There are no cliff divers at Slappy Cakes, but it is a theme restaurant with an enticing hook. Luckily, the gimmick will be enough for most; a much-needed distraction from menu options that are at best mediocre and at worst downright negligent.

Slappy Cakes' main shtick is DIY pancakes, cooked on tabletop griddles. They give you the batter in eight-ounce squeeze bottles, a gleaming hot surface to cook on, and optional add-ons like blueberries, bacon, and lemon curd. It's up to you to create your pancakes: dinosaurs, penises, Mickey Mouses. The sky's the limit.

If that were all Slappy Cakes offered—aside from their full bar—I'd be a happy fellow, gleefully telling you about the wonders of the establishment. Pancake making is so inherently pleasing. It's great for families. It offers built-in entertainment and conversation starters. ("How much do you think they pay for insurance?" "How many times do you think these menus will catch on fire?") It gives parents a chance to discuss human anatomy with their children... or not. ("It's a rocket ship, sweetie.")

Like a kid watching a cliff diver, I'm engrossed. And how cool is it that the choice of batters include gluten-free and vegan? Unfortunately, once you venture beyond the tasty selection of batters and add-ons, things change rather quickly.

The basics are decent enough. Eggs are well prepared, the home fries are crisp and flavorful, and there's good sausage gravy.

More complicated breakfast dishes are okay, though not impressive. The huevos rancheros could use way more kick, but benefits from an interesting contrast of crunchy tortilla below soft eggs, salsa, and cheese. A chicken fried steak has wonderfully crunchy coating beneath sausage gravy, but the meat is very tough and bland. There's no freshness or tenderness. It tastes much like what it is: an overcooked hamburger patty.

Things do not improve on the lunch side. On a recent visit, a rib sandwich had warm dry meat and cold sauce, creating a bizarre temperature contrast. The experience was no better for the overwhelming onion and the limp "fork fries."

But negligence came in the form of a fried-chicken plate, which included chicken so undercooked the fat still clung tenaciously to the largely raw meat beneath a crisp, mealy coating. There is no excuse for such incredibly raw fried chicken. When the chicken was shown to the wait staff, they were very apologetic and the meal was comped. In fact, all in all, I found the front of house staff to be professional, friendly, and very accommodating. They're one of the best things about the restaurant, aside from the self-made pancakes and competent cocktails.

As I said, I'm dubious about gimmicks. However, in the case of Slappy Cakes, it's the only thing that would bring me back. If I had children, I imagine the place would be a regular stop, if only because there are few sanctioned places where adults can have their adult drinks while the kids have a good time of their own.

Beyond the DIY griddle, fun is hard to find. It's sad really, because it's so obvious that someone wanted to have a creative, delicious menu beyond the pancakes: one that was local, seasonal, and sustainable. Clearly the ownership did not want the place to be just about making your own pancakes. But it's all about execution, and currently the best cooking at Slappy Cakes is done by its smallest customers.

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