Monday, February 22, 2016

IHOP, 2015

Yes, every year, I go to IHOP.  I go twice.  Every year.  Without fail.  This year was no different.  You can start with my reviews from 20122013, or 2014 if you wish to read about a lot of pancakes.

My last few visits to IHOP were lackluster, as you read about previously, but I had some major love for IHOP over the years (particularly for the Swedish pancakes when I was in graduate school!).  Lately, though, well, it just hasn't done it for me.  Yet I keep going back, twice a year, to redeem either my annual Birthday coupon or my annual anniversary of joining their E-Club coupon, each good for a free meal.

Since I started my blog in 2012, I've visited 8 times.  The freebies program has changed quite a bit during that time.  Originally, I could get basically any breakfast meal I wanted, like a combo meal of pancakes with eggs, hashbrowns, bacon, etc, but now it is limited to just pancakes (technically, any variety of pancakes up to the cost of the Rooty Tooty Fresh N Fruity pancakes).

The combos were great; I had some really quite decent eggs and great hashbrowns alongside my Harvest Grain 'N Nut pancakes on my first visit in 2012.  But then things went downhill.  The Harvest Grain 'N Nut pancakes weren't quite as awesome the next year,  and on my second visit that year, I decided to try the Whole Wheat pancakes instead, and they came out raw  (although the eggs and hashbrowns were stellar on that visit).  Then, 2014.  The Harvest Grain 'N Nut pancakes were hard, thin, and cold.  And, the offer changed to no longer include sides, so, when the pancakes were bad, I had nothing to fall back on.  So I gave up on that particular IHOP location and tried the other, smaller one in the city for my next visit, but, the pancakes again weren't good.

I had pretty much decided to just stop trying.  But then, my birthday happened again, and my inbox had a treat for me.  Free pancakes.  Dammit, I couldn't resist!

Visit #1, August, Beach Street Location

So I went back to the big location, as it was closer to where I was, even though I knew better, I really did.  I sat at the counter.  On one side of me was some tourists who were trying to decide if they should go visit the Mission, and on the other, a mother with her teenage son, who was clearly there only to satisfy him.  He ordered a massive stack of double chocolate chip pancakes topped with whipped cream, she ordered, literally, a single hard boiled egg, and pulled a banana out of her bag with it.  Have I mentioned how much I love people watching at IHOP?

Things had changed slightly at the Beech Street location.  Before, they used to run dual passes, and the pancakes were finished by staff right in front of the counter where I always sit.  Now, they use only the far side pass, and cooks themselves seem to do all the garnishing too.

But that is about all that has changed.  The serving staff still seem to be entirely disorganized.  They don't check on tables, they don't offer refills, etc.  I know this is IHOP, but geez, the folks next to me had no water for a very long time and literally couldn't get anyone to pay attention to them even when forcefully trying to stop servers as they passed by.

The real tragedy to me though is the amount of time that food sits in the window once it is ready.  Sometimes it seems like one side of the kitchen isn't in sync with the other, so an order isn't fully complete, which I can understand.  But mostly, orders are complete and just ... sit there.  The servers just don't stop by to pick things up.  My order was completed a good 5 minutes before my server ever bothered to go check on it.  Sigh.
Raspberry White Chocolate Chip Pancakes. $9.99.
"Four of our signature buttermilk pancakes filled with sweet white chocolate chips, crowned with lush raspberry topping, a drizzle of cream cheese icing and finished with fluffy whipped topping."

This year, I could pick any pancakes up to the value of the Rooty Tooty Fresh N' Fruity ($9.99 at this IHOP).  Given that the Harvest Grain 'N Nut were soooo disappointing the last few times, I decided to just be totally different and try something entirely new.  IHOP has a large pancake selection, ranging from basic buttermilk/blueberry/chocolate chip, to those topped with assorted (not fresh) fruit, to the decadent.  I'll admit, for a moment, I considered the cheesecake stuffed pancakes.  Or the Cinn-a-Stack, stuffed with cinnamon roll filling and topped with cream cheese icing.  Instead, I opted for something middle of the road: Raspberry White Chocolate Chip.  Not as boring as plain buttermilk, but not as sugar coma inducing as the Cinn-a-Stack.

As expected, my pancakes arrived not exactly hot and fresh.  But ... they were at least large and fluffy, as I remembered IHOP pancakes to be back in the day.  Gone were the hard, thin, tiny pancakes.  Things were looking up.

I realized that I probably had never had a buttermilk based pancake from IHOP before, as strange as that sounds.  I mostly got the Harvest Grain 'N Nut or whole wheat.  Not because I was trying to be healthy, I just always liked the heartiness.

The pancakes were well prepared, as I said, large and fluffy.  They didn't have any real buttermilk tang to them, so if I had gotten plain pancakes they would have been quite boring, but with my white chocolate chips inside, they were quite enjoyable.  The chips were small but plentiful.  They weren't really melted, which was actually fine, as they provided a bit of texture (although I think melty would have been nicer).  The white chips were super sweet, and gave great pops of sweetness in every bite.

I hated the "lush raspberry topping".  It was composed of incredibly seedy mushy raspberries in a sweet syrup.  The sweet syrup was actually ok, and it went well with the white chocolate, but the seeds I just couldn't stand.  Luckily for me, the topping was only one the top pancake, and it was very easy to scrape the actual berries off, and just leave the sweet goo behind. (Side note: if you expected to get raspberry in every bite, you'd be pretty sad.  Pancakes #2, #3, and #4 were sans any berry sauce, and there wasn't any berry inside the pancakes themselves either).

Next came the "drizzle of cream cheese icing", which truly was just a drizzle.  It was sweet and enjoyable enough, but honestly, I couldn't really taste it.  White chocolate, glaze, and sweet sauce though are a nice combination.

And finally "fluffy whipped topping", standard stuff, from a can.  It was fine, and certainly turned these into dessert more than breakfast, but, it completed the deal.

So overall, far more successful than any of my last visits.  The pancakes were well made.  I'd even get this variety again, but I'd most certainly leave off the horrible raspberry topping.  Maybe I could get the blueberry compote or strawberry topping instead?

A warning though, this was a sweet offering, for sure.  So many sweet components all together, without anything to really balance it all out.  Don't kid yourself that this was a reasonable thing to have for breakfast (not that much at IHOP is ...).

Oh, and I'll give them a few points for the plating too.  The raspberry goo sorta artfully dripped down the side (intentionally? who knows), the icing drizzle was a zig zag, and the whip was actually centered.
I always have fun with the syrups at IHOP, but these particular pancakes left me with a bit of a conundrum.  They were too sweet to possibly slather MORE syrups on.  But I still wanted to try them all anyway.

The Old Fashioned was fine, but didn't go with the pancakes at all.  Butter Pecan is usually my favorite, but was even a worse match against the white chocolate.

The Strawberry actually went nicely with the white chocolate, and is what inspired me to think that I could perhaps get the strawberry topping instead next time.  But the best was the Blueberry.  Sweet, totally fake, but, well, I like it.

Visit #2, September, Lombard Street Location

Another year, another anniversary of joining the E-Club.  This means ... yes, more free pancakes!  After my lackluster experience at the big SF IHOP on Beech Street for my birthday pancakes a few weeks prior (decently made, but, served cold), I decided to visit the Lombard location for my anniversary pancakes, even though it is much further away.

I've reviewed this location before, but again, I couldn't help but notice the differences between the two locations.  Yes, it was crazy busy, like any IHOP.  The staff move around like crazy.  But here, they are on top of things.  Multiple servers stopped by my table during the meal.  My order was taken quickly.  Food arrived in a normal amount of time.  My bill was brought out as soon as I was done.  I can't say I've ever had those things happen at the other location.  And ... the staff were friendly.  My main server wished me a happy anniversary two times!  The others who stopped by genuinely seemed to care when they asked if there was anything else I needed.  At the other IHOP ... they didn't even check on me.

In the future, I'll definitely return to this location.
The main reason I've visited the other location more often, besides that it is closer to me, is that they have counter seating.  I'm rarely able to convince others to come on my IHOP excursions (seriously people, what is wrong with you?  IHOP is amazing!), so I usually go alone.  Sitting at the counter feels more comfortable to me when dining alone than a table.  This location offers only tables, standard IHOP furniture.

But even though I was dining alone, and seated at a table, I wasn't bored.  As always, one of my favorite aspects of visiting IHOP is the people watching.  I'm fascinated by the folks who dine at IHOP, as they are not the same segment of the population I regularly interact with.  On this visit, I had a wonderful treat: the couple next to me, who were seated right after me, had never been to an IHOP before.  They were rather adorable to listen to.

The server came over to them immediately, asking if they'd like to order any drinks.  They eagerly told him, "We've never been to IHOP before, so you tell us, what should we get to drink?"  I almost laughed.  He seemed a bit stunned, and replied, "well, most people get coffee?  Maybe some orange juice?"

But the real fun began as they explored the menu.  "Wait ... the three egg omelette comes with a stack of 3 pancakes  ... on the side?  How is 3 pancakes a SIDE??!", "Woah, look at this one! 2 eggs, 2 bacon, 2 sausage, 2 french toast, 2 pancakes, and hash browns? We could split that that one meal and still never be able to finish it!",  "How does everything come with eggs, a breakfast meat, and hashbrowns on the side?  Just the sides are a full meal!"  Yup, we've all had these reactions to the IHOP menu, but it was pretty fun to listen to them experiencing it all for the first time

They seemed tempted by everything.  The server came back to take their order several times, but they were totally indecisive.  I wanted to tell them to just get pancakes, and stop even considering burgers.  But ... I didn't want to be rude.  It was also amusing to watch the female diner's reaction as orders passed by, huge, huge decadent platters.  Her eyes went wide every time, and she'd grab his arm saying, "Honey, look at that?  That is one person's order!!!"  Oh the novelty of IHOP.
Buttermilk Chocolate Chip Pancakes.  $9.99.
As I've mentioned, when I was a IHOP regular, in grad school, my order was generally the Swedish pancakes.  I wanted to try them again for old time's sake, but, alas, Swedish pancakes are more expensive than the free anniversary item allowance (currently $9.99, the value of the signature Rooty Tooty Fresh ‘N Fruity® Pancakes).  The Rooty Tooty is horrible, topped with their really low quality frozen fruit mush, so I never get that.  But I could pick any type of pancakes I wanted, just like last time.

My pancake choice back in the day was always the Harvest Grain ’N Nut® Pancakes.  But given the past visits where they just weren't good, I had to move on.  The Raspberry White Chocolate I had a few weeks prior for my birthday were pretty good (well, the white chocolate pancakes were, not the raspberry topping), and I almost ordered them again.  But I wanted to try something new.

I decided to stick with a buttermilk base, since I liked that in the Raspberry White Chocolate Chip pancakes.  No more Harvest Grain ’N Nut for me.  I knew I didn't want any of the fruit topped ones, as the IHOP "fruit" is frozen, sweet, goo. This ruled out about half my options.  I was momentarily tempted again by the New York Cheesecake pancakes, until I realized that it really makes no sense to put cheesecake in my pancakes.  I like cheesecake, I like pancakes, but even I had no desire to combine these things.  My next almost-choice was again the decadent sounding Cinn-A-Stack.  They were officially removed from the IHOP menus a while but, but, this location still had them listed.  A stack of four pancakes, with sweet cinnamon roll filling between each layer, topped with cream cheese icing.  If I were more hungry, or in the mood for decadence, or had someone to spit with, I certainly would have gone for that one.

Instead, I opted for the only other non-fruit option: chocolate chip pancakes.  These are available with either a chocolate base or buttermilk, I opted for buttermilk.  I also asked for the toppings to be on the side, as I hate having the butter all melt into the top pancake.

My pancakes arrived after only about 10 minutes.  They were piping hot and fresh, steam rolling off of them.  I told you this location is better!

The order came with four large pancakes, each with a perfectly crispy exterior, fluffy interior.  Really nicely prepared.  The base flavor did have a slight buttermilk tang to it, quite good.

Chocolate chips were mixed in, with some pancakes receiving far more than others, not really evenly distributed.  They chips were super melty, which didn't happen with my white chocolate chips.

So, these were good.  Really nicely cooked, good base flavor, nicely melty chocolate.  The only problem?  It turns out, uh, I don't like chocolate chip pancakes.  I like chocolate, don't get me wrong, but I don't usually like it in my baked goods for breakfast.  I prefer plain croissants to chocolate croissants (although I like to slather them in butter or jam).  I had several amazing looking chocolate brioches in Paris, and never liked them, no fault of the fine Parisian boulangeries.  Whoops.  My bad.

Speaking of butter, the butter was fine, generic, but I really liked melting plentiful butter into the pancakes.  The whipped cream was just stuff from a can, and I get how it makes sense with chocolate, but I didn't want it with my pancakes.  It is funny, I love whipped cream on my desserts, but with pancakes, it just doesn't work for me.  I'm glad I had it on the side, and I added it to my coffee instead (mmmm!)

Next time, I'll go back to the white chocolate chip pancakes, just sans the awful raspberry topping.  Or maybe, just maybe, I'll go for the crazy Cinn-a-Stack, if it is still around ...
As always, I explored the syrups.

Not pictured is the sugar-free syrup, which I asked for, just to try, but also because I know I like to drown my pancakes in syrup, so I wanted to at least cut my sugar intake a little.  The sugar free syrup is Cary's brand, and it was actually really gross.  Thick, gloopy, fake tasting.  I forgot how much I disliked it.   Ooops.

The strawberry and blueberry were again laughably fake and fruity, but I do kinda like them.  They didn't go well with chocolate though.

Butter pecan was the winner. Sweet, flavorful, and it did compliment the chocolate the best. I really enjoyed my bites, sans chocolate, loaded up with butter and butter pecan syrup. (Hmm, they should make a pecan flavor pancake!)


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