Original Pancake House – Tuesday was a holiday, and also the last day before the start of the semester, so HJ and I decided to hit the town for some shopping and brunch. Truth be told, the shopping part of the day ended up being a wash. In the morning (and then later in the afternoon as well) we went out looking for a new lens for my camera, but we came up blank. On the positive side, we did figure out where we needed to go to for a decent selection of lenses. In the afternoon we went shopping for backpacks, but we came up empty there as well. We had specific packs in mind, and there were in fact two left—one of each kind that we wanted—but when we looked closer at the pack I wanted we saw that there was a problem with one of the zippers. Rather than just getting HJ’s pack, we decided to wait for the new models to come out in April.
So all that was a little disappointing, and it did feel like we spent quite a bit of time wandering around and getting nothing done. The one thing that saved the day was brunch, which we had at the Original Pancake House in Itaewon, a relatively new establishment. New in Korea, that is—OPH opened their doors in the States in 1953. This was actually our second visit, but I did not have my camera on hand for the first visit, so I decided to save a review for when I did have my camera.
I will preface my review by saying that it kind of blows my mind that we’re only getting something like OPH now—I think the market has been ready for it for quite some time. “Brunch” has been chic for quite some time now. I don’t have exact dates to throw around, but I do know that it has been several years since HJ and I were disappointed by a place called “Butterfinger Pancakes,” and the number of restaurants offering brunch menus has steadily increased since then. Most of them are complete crap, of course. They throw some poorly cooked eggs, white bread toast, and a few strips of anemic bacon on a plate and expect the world to beat a path to their door. Or they come up with some fancy, vaguely brunch-like dishes and pretend to be sophisticated in order to draw in the painfully fashionable crowd. I suspect it might be some sort of “Sex & the City” thing, but on principle I never watched that show, so I can’t say for sure.
Anyway, the bottom line is that many, many restaurants have been fobbing off inferior imitations of brunch on the Korean public for years now, and it has been getting on my nerves. Brunch is not about looking cool and fashionable while out with your girlfriends. Brunch is about breakfast ambushing lunch in a back alley, knocking it unconscious, and stealing its wallet. It’s about acknowledging that breakfast has the best comfort food out there and deciding to put that comfort before any conceptions of when a given meal should properly be eaten. At least, that’s what brunch is about to me. And—to put the conclusion first—I am pleased to say that OPH delivers this experience. I’ve waited twenty years for a decent pancake house; thank God, that wait is over.
OPH is located in between Itaewon Station and Noksapyeong Station on the main drag—although it’s closer to Itaewon Station. Your best bet is to come out Exit #1 of Itaewon Station and head down the road until you see it on the right. You’ll be hard-pressed to miss it: The red-and-white-striped awning and shining stainless steel diner doors are a dead giveaway.
Both times we’ve been to OPH there has been a wait. Today it was even more packed than it was for our first visit (which is not too surprising, considering it was a holiday), but we didn’t have to wait long—both times we were told it would be a twenty-minute wait, but we have yet to wait that long. They seem to be pretty good at turning tables quickly. Anyway, as we waited I again read their “business playbook,” which is printed on the wall next to the cashier and waiting area.
I don’t know anything about running a business, but some of these things seem like better ideas than others. I like the idea of buying only the best ingredients, valuing relationship over profit, and worshiping butter; not keeping track of food costs and crunching numbers would probably make their accountant cry. It is, of course, hyperbole, and can probably be boiled down to: Put the quality of your food first and the finances will take care of themselves.
The restaurant is divided into two parts. This is the larger, lower section, which looks like the love child of a diner and the bridge of JJ Abram’s Enterprise. It seems to work, though; it’s clean, bright, and shiny enough to seem like a quality establishment, but it also has enough of that diner atmosphere to make you feel right at home.
Our table was in the smaller upper section, which is located up a short flight of stairs and allows you to look out over the main area. I took this photo mainly for the “EAT PANCAKES” on the wall, but you can also see the three large tables on that side of the dining area. These tables can sit eight each, which I think is a great idea. Two of those tables were occupied by large groups while we were there, and it looked like they were all having a good time. That’s (also) what brunch is about.
Here’s HJ waiting for brunch to arrive. The three girls at the table next to us spent almost the entire time they were there taking selfies, carefully adjusting the angle of the camera and their poses to get the perfect shot. Seriously, they must have taken fifty photos. I guess, for some people, brunch is about looking cool and fashionable while out with your girlfriends. And if that’s what makes you happy, then I suppose that’s what you should do. For our part, I figured we could be forgiven one photo like this.
And here is our meal! It’s pretty close to what we had on our first visit—the only difference is that the crepes had a cherry kijafa topping then, and this time we decided to go with the mandarin and “tropical sauce” topping. The rest is pretty self-explanatory: two eggs, three strips of bacon, and three pancakes with whipped butter. Not seen here is a glass of fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice that was really fresh and tasty (actually, you can see a sliver of it in the upper right). All of this ended up costing us W30,500, which is a pretty good deal.
You can get your eggs done a number of different ways, but both times we’ve gone with basted—like sunny side up, but the eggs are basted with the cooking oil/butter to cook the tops. I’m not sure why you would want to have them done any other way, to be honest. The bacon is Daily’s, imported from the US, and it is good. If you’re craving some thick, meaty bacon, OPH has got you covered.
Here are the stars of the show, three buttermilk pancakes. According to the paper mats that adorn the tables, these are made with a potato sourdough starter that is fermented for five days. Once the batter is made, it is then proofed for another two days, for a total of nearly 170 hours of fermenting/proofing. The results are heavenly—the pancakes are fluffy and moist, like biting into a cloud, and all that fermenting and proofing gives them a great flavor. I make pancakes at home from time to time, and I’m pretty proud of the recipe I have developed, but I will gladly admit that they can’t even dream of holding a candle to OPH pancakes. Just thinking about these pancakes now is making my mouth water. I wish I were at OPH right now with a big, steaming stack sitting in front of me.
This photo doesn’t really do the pancakes justice, but here is my half of the three pancakes, slathered with butter and soaked in syrup. Man, these pancakes are so good. I can almost taste them right now.
This was the final element of the meal, and admittedly it was something of an anti-climax. We got the crepes on our first visit for a little variety, and the cherry kijafa topping was quite tasty. We were a little disappointed in the mandarin variety, though—the tropical sauce was very sweet, and the mandarins failed to balance that out with the proper tartness. Overall it was just very sweet.
Not that the crepes are bad, of course. But HJ and I discussed this after the meal, and we both agreed that variety can sometimes be overrated. Had those crepes been a full order of pancakes—even just plain pancakes, without any of the many toppings they have on offer at OPH—it would have been bliss. We agreed that next time we would try the waffles, just to see what they’re like, but you really can’t go wrong with the pancakes. It is the Original Pancake House, after all. I guess if you’re really in the mood for crepes, they might be worth ordering, but it’s hard to justify not just getting more pancakes.
So, like I said back up at the top, we finally have a real brunch place, somewhere we can go for rib-sticking comfort food, not a too-cool-for-school joint trying to fob off fancy dishes on us. There is a more than decent chance that you will be sitting next to people for whom the remembering self is more important than the experiencing self (i.e., anyone who spends more time taking pictures than actually enjoying the food), but such is life. I took these photos for the sake of the review—a special request from Kevin—but you can be sure that the next time I go, all my energy will be focused on attacking a big pile of the best pancakes I’ve ever had in Korea—and among the best I’ve had anywhere.