As the “IHOB” hubbub demonstrates, IHOP doesn’t exactly inspire nuanced deconstruction, and neither does the concept of cake for breakfast, which is what the cupcake pancake is.
It’s a common Seattle story: A girl grows up in a household of co-op shoppers, where sugary cereals are reserved for birthdays and camping trips. The girl rebels, covertly sipping Coca-Cola (it’ll stunt your growth!) and chewing Fruit Stripe (it’ll give you cavities!) and snarfing grapes (we’re boycotting in solidarity with farmworkers!) at friends’ houses. The girl grows into an adult with an insatiable sweet tooth, for whom junk food has never lost the shiny allure of the forbidden. She finds deep relaxation in baking a rainbow-chip cake with boxed mix and canned icing. She eats Flamin’ Hot Cheetos by the bagful. She gets a quiet thrill every time she buys Skippy peanut butter instead of Adams.
Well, that girl was me, which is how I found myself on a recent weekday at one of only two IHOP locations in Seattle, ready to try some godawful-looking, maybe disgusting-in-a-good-way cupcake pancakes. The Maison Internationale des Pancakes may be presently under fire for a poorly conceived marketing campaign — “IHOB”? Really? OK — but these cupcake pancakes ($7.99), with their baked-in rainbow sprinkles and layer of icing, seemed a monstrosity all their own, a peak junk-food experience I needed to have, like Burning Man for maladjusted taste buds.
If you’ve never been to IHOP, you’ve been somewhere like it: The exterior aesthetic is pure 1970s ski chalet. Inside, the napkins are paper. The booths are tidy in an antiseptic way. Service is prompt and friendly. It is quite possibly Capitol Hill’s only breakfast spot that doesn’t have a line. The background music comes courtesy of adult contemporary hits circa 2001, and ranges from cringey Goo Goo Dolls to the Backstreet Boys (did you hear they’re back) to “Dawson’s Creek”-era Paula Cole, who’s aging well. But most importantly, IHOP offers the Valhalla of breakfast: an entire carafe of coffee ($2.69) right on the table for your mug-refilling pleasure. This is the way to my heart and I don’t care who knows it.
I’ve somehow convinced intrepid Travel & Outdoors reporter Crystal Paul to join me on this quest for cavities, and she decides to put this “IHOB” controversy to rest by ordering one of the burgers, confusingly branded as “Ultimate Steakburgers” and, with a price range of $11.69-$13.59, surprisingly expensive.
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When the burger arrives, Crystal reports that it is like “a late-night diner burger,” with soft bread and American cheese that is “exactly what it is.”
IHOP should perhaps stay in their lane.
Meanwhile, across the table, the cupcake pancakes are here: a rainbow-flecked short stack so loaded with whipped cream (also covered in sprinkles) that the little dairy mountain threatens to slide off the fluffy cakes and over the (low) lip of my (small) plate.
Everything about this seems like a bad idea.
But when the Funfetti-like flavor profile melds with the comforting doughiness of mass-produced pancake, it hits my brain’s pleasure center like the olfactory equivalent of bopping along embarrassingly to a bad but catchy Taylor Swift song.
That’s right, the cupcake pancake is the EDM-inflected pop song of food: It’s proudly synthetic, and delivers an instant rush of primal joy. You won’t regret it, because you won’t remember it. Like housing a bag of pink- and white-frosted circus animals, or inhaling soft-serve off a cardboard-y cone, consuming the cupcake pancake is not a deep or complicated pleasure. It is simple in the way that pumpkin spice lattes and high-end cupcakes are simple, which is to say it’s pleasant, and, like so many colorful foods enjoyed publicly by women, likely to be dismissed as unserious.
I seriously like it.
But I can only make it through half of the stack before I start craving a tall glass of cold milk, like a 5-year-old who has just realized that maybe you can eat too much chocolate. I’m relieved to remember I packed broccoli for later in today’s sad desk lunch.
As Crystal and I head back to the office along city blocks cratered with construction projects, I realize I am kind of proud of IHOP for sticking it out, and keeping some Old Seattle blandness alive on Capitol Hill. Amid the neighborhood’s proliferation of artisanal cocktails and green juice variants, a stack of weird, relatively cheap pancakes and the simple joy of a coffee carafe of one’s own seem like quaint, endangered pleasures. And they are: With the exception of institutions like perennially smoke-stained Beth’s, and Pete and Patty’s Eggnest empire, it’s become increasingly difficult to find a basic diner breakfast in this town.
And when the breakfast craving strikes, I don’t really care if I have to listen to the Backstreet Boys to appease it.
Skip the burger, though. Some things are sacred.