One visit to the new House of Pancakes in Parkside is enough to render the worldly claims of the so-called International House of Pancakes laughable. The tiny restaurant (no relation to the chain) specializes in Chinese pancakes, and it's not exactly the kind of place where you're forced to suffer the indignity of ordering something called a "Rutti Tutti Fresh 'N Fruity ®."
With a dozen options to choose from, these are different than your typical American flapjacks in more ways than one. They're often made with unleavened dough instead of batter, and as a result, don't have the same fluffy, cakey quality — most of them more closely resemble Indian paratha or French galettes. Some are variations on the green-onion-studded cakes found at dim sum restaurants; others use griddled dough made from wheat flour. All of them illustrate why pancakes are a popular street food in China (and makes you wonder why food trucks here haven't cottoned to them yet).
The beef pancake here is the most popular for a reason — it's a savory triangle of dough and beef, like a slice of pizza with a top crust. The minced beef inside is fortified with green onions and ginger, and when it's warm it melts into the griddled wheat crust for a greasy, satisfying bite. A single one would cure a hangover in no time. Variations come filled with pork, chicken, and lamb, but none of them ascend to the same heights as the beef.
Beef is the star of two other pancakes, wildly different from the first. The beef roll pancake folds shredded beef and Hoisin sauce into green onion pancakes, like a wrap sandwich. The richness of the meat plays off the allium-scented cake, which comes to the table crisp and warm. Less successful are the beef sesame pancakes, which have the same marinated meat but are encased in a dense, sesame-seed-topped dough that overpowers the taste of the beef.
The breadiness of the sesame dough is an asset in the house special, though. The sesame seed pancake is a good inch thick, light and sweet, but fried on the top and bottom for an effect not unlike a doughnut. Those who don't want meat can also go for the rolled green onion pancake with a thin sheet of scrambled egg, sauteed scallions, and Hoisin; it reminded me of mu shu.
The atmosphere at the House of Pancakes is definitely no frills. There are fewer than 10 tables, and yet the service is still lackadaisical. It's cash only and there's no liquor license. The walls are a dim beige, and there's a bracket on the far wall where once a TV was mounted. The new owners have done little with the space since its former incarnation as a take-out dim sum joint. But you're not there for the ambience — and the upside of a hole in the wall is that nothing on the menu costs more than $10.
And beyond pancakes, the other specialty of the house is the hand-pulled noodles. Peek into the kitchen and see them being pulled to order, but there are none of the floor-show theatrics of M.Y. China here — just a woman in a T-shirt calmly going about her business. All her hard work is worth it when you bite into the wheaty noodles. They're springy and chewy, giving your teeth a bit of a workout instead of just yielding at the first bite.
The weird thing about the noodles is that they come in soup, which isn't explained on the menu. The broth in the version with pork and mustard greens (labeled on the menu as "master greens") was fairly bland — it let the flavors of the noodles shine through, but also necessitated a liberal hand with the table's chili oil. Beef and lamb broths are richer, but they're all delicately flavored.
We also dipped into the comprehensive dumpling section of the menu, attracted at first by the lamb pot stickers. Your enjoyment of them will be in direct relation to your feelings about lamb itself — the aficionados at the table loved them, the lamb-adverse found them too gamey — but overall they were fine, with properly doughy wrappers and a light pan sear (there are also pork, chicken, and veggie varieties). The steamed dumplings, however, had a wrapper that was too thick for the fillings inside, which only reminded us that there are better dumpling houses in the area.
But leave the expert dumplings to the dumpling houses — this is the kingdom of pancakes, and just as you shouldn't judge an IHOP by the quality of its pot roast, you shouldn't leave here without trying the restaurant's namesake. I'll be back for more. Maybe even for breakfast.