In the US, March Madness usually consists of watching the NCAA Basketball tournament and filling out a predictive bracket. When I was in university, I used to watch my college’s basketball team work its way up the bracket. At work, I’d fill out my predictive bracket and put in ten bucks in hopes of guessing the right teams and winning the pot. However, now that I live in Japan, I discovered a whole new type of March madness: Pancake Quest!
Pancake Quest was a stamp rally I stumbled upon while taking my friend out for breakfast to celebrate her upcoming wedding. At the restaurant, the waiter handed us the regular menu as well as a bright red laminated sheet with a photo of three pancakes on it. Seeing the word “pancake” right next to the word “quest” immediately piqued my interest. Intrigued, I scanned the QR code to find out more information. A page in Japanese popped up, and thanks to the combined effort of myself, my friend, and a lot of google translate, I read the rules of the stamp rally.
A stamp rally is essentially a challenge to visit all of the places (in this case, restaurants) that are participating in the rally. When you go to the location and complete the task (in this case, eating a pancake- YUM), you receive a QR code that acts as your “stamp”. You scan the QR code with your phone’s camera, and it checks off the location and task you completed. TIP: For stamp rallies, make sure to use the same phone for the whole challenge, and don’t delete your browser history (that would delete the stamp too). For this challenge, the rules also stated that you must eat every pancake, and that buying the pancake just for the stamp but leaving it uneaten would be “disrespectful” to the pancake. Can’t argue there…
The quest was only valid through the month of March 2019, and you had to visit all 19 (eventually 20) cafés and restaurants in that time. This was the 3rdof March. I told my friend that while I’d love to participate, March was already going to be too busy. I didn’t have the time, it would be too expensive, and absolutely terrible for my health/waistline.
And yet… how could I resist??
I started my quest on March 5th. Determined to eat every pancake, I recruited some friends to help me conquer the rally. I figured this would help spare me a few calories while also meeting the challenges rules. So, for the month of March, I ate 8 of the pancakes solo, and tag-teamed 12 with a friend. I tried Every. Single. Pancake. and took notes for this review. As far as I can tell, I was the only non-Japanese participant- so it was pretty good language practice!
Every pancake in the challenge featured strawberries and was specifically created for this stamp rally. The pancakes are split into three different groups: Flat (similar to American style pancakes or the thicker, flat ones known as hotto keiki), Sponge (fluffier and thicker than a flat pancake, but denser than a soufflé pancake), and Soufflé pancakes (the famous wiggly pancakes known as fwafwa (fluffy) pancakes).
The following list is in order of visit. The pancakes are rated on a scale from one to five, with one being the worst score.
Score break down:
One: Thanks, I hate it. It was not nice to eat, and I would not recommend it.
Two: Meh… It wasn’t terrible, but I would not recommend it.
Three: It was fine. I’d eat it again but wouldn’t go out of my way.
Four: A good pancake. I recommend it.
Five: Pancake perfection. These were my favorites; I highly recommend it!
Pancake Quest by the numbers:
Days active: 31
Days I participated: 25 (March 5th-March 30th)
Pancakes eaten: 20
Approx. total cost of pancakes: 34920 yen (approx. 340 USD; I know, I know, but I was determined!)
Number of “pancake friends”: 12
1) Café VaVa
The first pancake on my quest! This café inside a Takashimaya department store has a fancy lounge-like interior. The music playing inside the department store clashes with the music being played inside the café, so it was surprisingly noisy considering I was the only customer at the time. The music, the long wait for the pancake, and the price left me expecting to be disappointed- however, I was pleasantly surprised. I was actually shocked by how good the pancake was; it had a unique texture, dense yet spongy. I was also happy to find out that the pancake was gluten free: made out of rice, mountain potato, and tofu. Despite the unconventional ingredients, it still had a good pancake taste and went well with syrup.
Price: 1,900 yen
Highlight: gluten free
2) Café Cucina & Company (カフェクッチーナ&カンパニー)
I don’t have many nice things to say about this one, but the café has a cool-ish view of Shibuya. Before I get too harsh on this pancake, it did have some redeeming features. The strawberry cream on the top was fresh and tasty. The raspberry and vanilla sauces were okay, and the presentation was pretty. But… oh man those pancakes where so, so bitter! All the sugary additions like the fruit, sauces, and unnecessary candy couldn’t cover the bitter taste of those suckers. The aftertaste was even worse! This was one of two pancakes on the quest that were so bitter eating them was more of a punishment than a treat.
Highlight: the view, and only, the view…
This tiny, isty bitsy café in Kita-sanju is located right next to a famous pancake place that’s so exclusive you have to make reservation beforehand. (Seriously, they do not mess around!) However, this place is actually a kakigori shop that also happens to have pancakes on the menu. I’m not sure how the fancy place next door is, but this café was a treat. With the exception of Café Ange, this café had the most relaxing and cozy atmosphere.
The inside only has about four tables, and you order at the counter. Probably due to the small size and the open kitchen, it smelled amazing. I got to add a pot of tea to my pancake set for just 200 yen, which paired very nicely with the pancakes. The pancake was cut into wedges and was prepared like French toast, so it was a really nice hybrid of the two. The outside was slightly caramelized like French toast, while the inside has the light and fluffy soufflé-like texture of a pancake. For me, the sign of a truly good pancake is that it is tasty as is and doesn’t rely on topping or sauces for the best flavor, and these completely delivered. The maple syrup and strawberries were a nice complement. I liked the oranges and strawberry ice cream as well, but more as separate sides. I will definitely be returning to this little gem!
Highlight: French toast vibes
4) Café Accueil Ebisu (カフェアクイーユ恵比寿本店)
This spot in Ginza marked the first time I bought a friend along to help me try a new pancake. She had picked this one because it looked nice in pictures, but unfortunately it didn’t deliver in many other places. The café was HUGE and the music being played was awkwardly loud-ugh.
The first thing I noticed was the still frozen fruit placed on top. Nothing says cheap like using frozen fruit as garnish- especially on top of a pancake that’s supposed to highlight strawberry season! Using frozen fruit is fine to make sauces or jams or whatever, but in clear view with ice still clinging to it? The lack of attention to detail is what really irked me about this pancake.
The pancake itself was edible- but was not at all what I would consider to be a pancake. It had more in common with a shortcake and was as dry as cornbread. It desperately needed some butter but paired with the berry sauce it was… okay.
Type: Flat… kind of.
Highlight: lots of seating
5) 3 Stars Pancake
Because I went on a Saturday, I spent about 20min in line waiting to get into this popular spot in Kawasaki. The line was made up of mostly women and girls, which isn’t unusual for a café, but once I got inside, I got a better idea of why… Inside was trendy and colorful, with an open kitchen full of ikemen (good looking guys) making pancakes. However, this place isn’t just for looks- these pancakes are the real deal. Three perfectly portioned, ultra-fluffy pancakes that wiggle on the way to your table is what Instagram dreams are made of. My fluffy plate was so wiggly that it toppled right over within 30 seconds of being placed on my table. At first it may look like a lot, but because these pancakes are like a soufflé on the inside with a pancake-like exterior, they are very light and easy to eat. The strawberry whipped cream and fresh strawberries perfectly completed the fwafwa pancakes, and I was surprised by how quickly I ate them up. This is one of my top recommendations for wiggly, fluffy pancakes (along with Café du Paris and Rainbow Pancake).
Highlight: Good looking guys making the pancakes the wiggle of the pancakes
6) Café du Paris (カフェ・ドゥ・パリ)
Right outside the station, this unassuming café is a small local spot, but inviting and highlighted with a colorful fish-tank in the middle. The atmosphere was laid-back and pleasant.
Out of all the pancakes I tried during pancake quest, no other pancake was more like a soufflé than the pancakes at Café du Paris. 100% soft, decadent and delicate texture. The cream cheese sauce included took it to another level, and every bite was like eating a delicious cloud. The only criticism I had was that the puff pastry flakes and ice cream were totally unnecessarily and took away from the soft texture. This is one of my top recommendations for wiggly, fluffy pancakes (along with 3 Star Pancake and Rainbow Pancake).
Highlight: texture, texture, texture
7) The French Toast Factory (Yokobashi AKIBA)
If anyone ever tries to tell you that big portions don’t exist in Japan, just show them this massive plate of pancakes. I had a friend help me finish these, but even between the two of us it was tough- not because they weren’t tasty, but because they were so intensely sweet.
These pancakes were served on long plate three different ways. The first had fresh whipped cream, strawberry sauce, and fresh strawberries. The second was a cavity-inducing-candy-store-explosion of marshmallow strawberry cream, strawberry sauce, and sprinkles. The final had the more ~modest ~ combo of a hefty portion of Nutella and fresh strawberries. The pancakes themselves were decent sponge-type pancakes, but they were so vastly overwhelmed but the heavy toppings it was hard to tell.
This café is located on the 8th floor of Yoshiba camera in Akihabara and is one of my favorite guilty pleasures for indulging in overly sugary breakfast foods. But if you go there, stick with the French toast, unless you are a fan of super extra sweet pancakes.
Highlight: large portions
8) Hands Expo Café
In complete contrast to the previous pancake trio, these pancakes were a breath of fresh air. They were served plain with a light sprinkling of powdered sugar. The fresh strawberries and a light sauce (similar to a strawberry smoothie) added to the pancakes’ yummy flavor. This was another win where the pancake could stand on its own and the additions were just bonuses. It had a gorgeous presentation and even better flavor. These pancakes, more than any other, had the perfect combination of western pancake flavor with Japanese pancake texture.
The Hands café in Ginz is located on the side of the Hands store. It has a dimly lit interior with a cool view of Ginza main street.
Highlight: perfect pancake taste
9) Pancake Cafe VoiVoi (パンケーキママカフェVoiVoi)
I really wanted to like this cute little neighborhood café in Sendagya. But little did I know; the bitter pancake strikes again! I felt like I was in some sort of set up, like I was being punked by all the people around me dutifully eating the most intensely bitter pancakes. The cream and fruit couldn’t help, the ice cream sort of helped but wasn’t powerful enough to stop the bitter, and even the caramel sauce was bitter.
I was starting to wonder if flat Japanese pancakes were like cilantro- where some people taste an awful flavor while everyone else tastes something delicious. I sat for quite a while at this café contemplating my choice to participate in this challenge, and eventually sheepishly snuck away leavening half my plate unfinished.
10) Café & Dining ZelkovA
To say my friend and I were underdressed for this restaurant would be an understatement- luckily, they cater to the large crowds of tourists that flock to Omotosando dori (street) so we didn’t stand out as badly as I thought we would. The inside is very fancy, but welcoming. It’s a bit pricy but not extravagantly so.
The pancake actually tasted a bit like chocolate cake, which was a nice change of pace. But what really stood out was the quality of ingredients and the flavor choices. A layer of pistachio custard cream was sandwiched between the two soft, chocolate cake-like pancakes. It was topped with fresh strawberries, a cute upside-down chocolate ice cream cone, and whipped cream. Surrounding the pancake was a pleasantly tart raspberry sauce. While the pancake was just okay on its own, it was all the elements working together that made it special.
Highlight: customer service
11) Riz Labo Kitchen (リズラボキッチン銀座)
I was happy to see yet another place offering gluten free pancakes! It can be hard for travelers who are sensitive or allergic to gluten to enjoy many different Japanese foods, and the fluffy pancakes are no exception. So, I really appreciate any place that makes the effort to create these foods. That being said… this pancake could use a few tune-ups.
They look like fluffy pancakes, but they are thickkkk. The split flavor profile wasn’t doing it any favors either- on just this one pancake there was a yuzu citrus cream, a balsamic sauce with strawberry bits, chocolate, peanuts, ruby chocolate, strawberries, and citrus sorbet. Coco Chanel may have been talking about fashion when she said “before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off”, but that statement could have easily helped these pancakes. Less could have been a lot more.
Highlight: gluten free
12) Espresso D Works (渋谷店)
Tucked away in the basement of a Shibuya building is the most hipster looking café I’ve seen in Tokyo: Espresso D Works. Looking like something between a Portland coffee shop and a speakeasy, this place includes a bathroom hidden behind a swing-open bookshelf and a waitstaff that has a high chance of completely forgetting to put in your order. In fact, they may forget that you are even there at all. Very on brand.
Anyway, after about a 45min chat with my friend at the bar, and a quick reminder to the waitress that we had, in fact, ordered a pancake, five minutes later another unedited catch all pancake appeared before us. In an explosion of all things Japan, our pancake featured an overwhelming amount of sakura flavor, red bean paste, fresh cream, jelly cubes, and a big sticky layer of mochi sandwiched between the two spongy pancakes. I was not a fan of the mochi, but it was my friend’s favorite part. The pancakes themselves were pretty good, but they were completely overwhelmed by all the toppings.
Highlight: total hipster realness in the heart of Shibuya
After my previous flat-pancakes-in-Japan experiences, I was very nervous to try Clovers. I thought I’d be in for another bitter disappointment, but to my relief these pancakes were nothing of the sort. Finally, a flat pancake with great flavor!
With just one guy running the place, it can take a while to sit down and be served. This simple set includes pancakes that are basically the same as American pancakes, with a baked strawberry and banana custard. Sugar was brûléed on the top of the custard to give it a crunchy texture. The unnecessary ice cream strikes again- it was pretty gross and added nothing to the dish. The café had a nice view out of the large windows that cover two walls. Unfortunately, like many places in Japan, it still has a smoking section.
14) Cafe Kaila Shibuya (カイラカフェ&テラスダイニング渋谷店)
I didn’t know Hawaiian pancakes were a thing until I moved to Japan. To be honest, they seem like the same pancakes you can find all over the US. However, if you slap “Hawaiian” onto something in Tokyo, it’s going to be pretty popular and probably have a line outside of it. Going on a Sunday morning didn’t help either- the restaurant was hopping, and we had to wait about an hour to get a table.
The pancake was more like a giant, flat brownie covered in fruit. I write this as a good thing- it was pretty tasty. The ingredients were simple and had lots strawberries and blueberries, but overall there was nothing that special about this dish.
Type: Flat (Hawaiian style)
Highlight: generous amount of fruit
15) Banks café & dinning
Inside this interestingly shaped café is an excellent example of how not to make a soufflé style pancake. The outside of the pancakes tasted awful, like a slightly burnt film covering a foamy, undercooked inside. At first, I thought the inside was super fluffy and creamy, but as you got into it, it devolved into a mushy, foam like mess. If that wasn’t enough, this dish was covered in a bucket’s worth of pure cinnamon, so your mouth could experience being simultaneously dry as bone and full of sticky, slimy foam. Yum?!
Highlight: the strawberries and an uninvited #tbt to the cinnamon challenge
16) Micsadeco & Café (ミカサデコ&カフェ神宮前)
The most difficult café to get into, I was turned away twice before finally making the list on the third try. If you want to check out this overrated place, you need to show up early (about two hours before you want to eat, and not later than 4pm because despite being open till 7 their list fills up), put your name on a list with a phone number, and they’ll call you when your table opens up. If you don’t have a Japanese phone number, you can waste time wait outside on the street in front of the shop. Then, if you do manage to get inside, it will still take a good amount of time for your food to come out, but it doesn’t really matter because this place’s main appeal is its Instagram potential.
Anyway, back to the pancakes. Lovely, perfectly stacked fwafwa cakes are presented for your photo taking pleasure. These had strawberries mixed into the batter, giving it a slightly pink hue. Super kawaii desu. The insides had the classic disappointment of many soufflé-style pancakes: undercooked. But not terribly undercooked- thanks to a lack of sauce or syrup to top it, they were also dry. There was custard on the top, but it had a strange taste like it had turned. However, the pink, sour sugar on top was nice, and the chocolate covered strawberries were good too.
Highlight: chocolate covered strawberries
17) Café Ange
Café Ange is tucked away in the quiet neighborhood of Shinozaki in East Tokyo. This super cute café has an eclectic collection of mismatched antique tables and chairs. The presentation of the pancakes was just as cute- a big stack of flat pancakes covered in cream, made to look like a Mont Blanc, a French pastry that’s surprisingly popular in Japan. All the ingredients tasted fresh and complemented each other. The cream was fluffy, the strawberries were fresh, and the pistachio ice cream actually went really well with the pancakes. The only thing I didn’t like was the added chucks of brown sugar, as it ruined part of the texture for me.
Type: Flat (hotto keki)
Highlight: super cute neighborhood café
18) Rainbow Pancake
Another popular shop in Harajuku with a line out the door (are we surprised?). The wait was about half an hour, but unlike some other places in this neighborhood it was totally worth it. This delicious pancake came with every topping you could want- but presented in a way that was totally customizable. I really liked this, because you could try a different flavor combination with every bite. There were chocolate, matcha, and citrus sauces to choose from. There were also strawberry and white chocolate pour-over syrups. Fresh strawberries, yogurt, and a floral strawberry ice cream completed the smorgasbord of options. If it had been mixed all together it would have been way too much, but the way everything was presently separately was perfect. This is one of my top recommendations for wiggly, fluffy pancakes (along with 3 Star Pancake and Café du Paris).
Highlight: variety of toppings
19) Patisserie SATSUKI Hotel New Otani
Ensconced by a hotel that my friend described as “fancy for the 80s,” Satsuki is a classic example of a place that slaps on extravagant prices just because it can. This was, by far, the most pretentious pancake experience I’ve ever had. The pancake, much like the restaurant and hotel, was all looks and no substance.
Despite the multiple butler-looking dudes running around, it was next to impossible to get anyone’s attention to order. When we did manage to flag someone down and place our order, we watched our pancake being painstakingly crafted by a very intense looking pastry chef. Finally presented with our meticulously placed pancake, we soon discovered that attention to detail only went to its factious façade. The macaron was disappointing, the strawberries scarce, the sauce sparse… but the worst part was the pancake itself. Miraculously, it managed to be both overcooked and dry on the outside, while have a runny, scrambled egg like texture on the inside. I was almost funny how bad this thing was, but the real jokes on me for spending 3000 yen on this affront to pastries.
Type: Not really sure… I think it was supposed to be Soufflé?
Highlight: you can watch the pancakes being made
20) Mog Mog
This was a great place to finish the madness that was pancake quest. This cute café tucked away in Shimo-Kitazawa has a cozy interior with small tables. Their pancake set was simple and perfectly portioned. There was a very generous amount of fresh fruit-surprising for the price. The cream included with the pancakes was light and tasty, and the ratio of all the ingredients made for a great balance. Unfortunately, the unnecessary ice cream had to make an appearance one more time. Also, something to watch out for- you get charged extra for a tiny splash of milk in your coffee or tea.
UPDATE: I’m sad to report that Mog Mog permanently closed on the 14th June 2019.
Highlight: amount of fruit
The quest was not easy, but it was pretty fun! I loved seeing how each café interpreted the challenge. My prize for completing the quest? Bragging rights, an essay worth of a blog post on pancakes, a few extra pounds and this cute key chain.
If you’d like to get my free “pancake” Lightroom preset, leave a comment below about which pancake you’d like to try!