Waffle fan Charlie Beck prepares to dig into Cinnamon Roll Belgian waffles at The Sinful Kitchen in Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

We’ve all had sudden, intense cravings for certain foods, say pizza or ice cream. In those moments, desire escalates quickly into desperate need. Before long, you’re dialing the pizza place or speeding to the store five minutes before it closes for a pint of cookies and cream so that finally, after many minutes – possibly even hours – of deprivation, you can get your fix and move on with your life.

Portland resident Charlie Beck, 28, was craving waffles for months. He’s a lifelong waffle lover, but this latest urge started while he was in Florida last fall. He wanted to scratch his itch at a Waffle House, the famed Southern diner chain, but never got the chance before his trip ended. When he returned to his East End apartment, which lacks the kitchen counter space for a waffle iron, he scoured Portland restaurant menus for waffles and found… nothing.

Flummoxed by this waffle-size hole in the famed Portland dining scene, Beck went public with his concerns. He sent the Press Herald a letter to the editor, published April 25, wondering where-oh-where all the waffles were in this food-crazy town.

“While the ever-wonderful Hot Suppa does serve a straight-up waffle breakfast, they are the only ones doing so,” Beck wrote. “Sure, chicken and waffles do pop up from time to time, and the much-missed Eaux did serve that, there is no other establishment in Portland that serves the ultimate fluffy dish.”

An allegation as severe as that demanded journalistic rigor. So we pored over Portland breakfast and brunch menus ourselves, and soon found that while a few restaurants besides Hot Suppa offered waffles on their regular menus, Beck had a point.

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Waffles aren’t an exotic dish. Beck, who hopes to be a product designer, wasn’t complaining that Portland restaurants don’t serve enough sheep’s head or Rocky Mountain oysters. So how could a beloved breakfast standard like waffles be so hard to find in this restaurant-rich town, while pancakes are everywhere?

Turns out the reason has nothing to do with customer preferences. The problem comes down to logistics. A waffle iron is a one-trick pony, used only for making waffles – unless you’re clever like Charlie’s dad, more on that later – that takes up a substantial amount of counter space in a crowded commercial kitchen. And while several pancakes can cook at once on a flattop grill, waffle irons make just one or two waffles (with double-irons) at a time, so multiple incoming waffle orders can seriously throw a kitchen off its rhythm during a breakfast rush.

“It’s about how fast you can produce them,” said Joe Catoggio, owner of popular brunch spot Bayside American Cafe, explaining why they don’t make waffles. Bayside serves more than 200 customers on their busiest days, turning tables up to five times, a volume of business that makes waffles a nonstarter there.

“It’s large equipment, too, and it tends to break down,” Catoggio added. “The press plates don’t last long if you use them a lot, and need to be replaced a couple times a year.”

Still, we did find waffles on the menu at The Sinful Kitchen at 906 Brighton Ave., Stacks Pancake Co., 139 Riverside St., and a food truck called The Pink Waffle. So in the name of thorough research, I took Beck out for a waffle crawl on the last weekend of April to see if the small but proud local waffle scene met his lofty, leavened standards.

A FAMILY THAT WAFFLES TOGETHER

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We started at The Pink Waffle, which was parked at the Saturday morning Coveside Market, outside Coveside Coffee on Vannah Avenue. A food truck specializing in waffles seemed almost too good to be true, and chef-owner Roux Kehoe said we weren’t the only ones who thought so. He said when he first pitched his waffle truck idea to people at the food business incubator Food Fork Lab, they told him, “We’ve been waiting for you.”

“It seemed like this was a good hole to fill, and the response has been amazing,” said Kehoe, who has been operating The Pink Waffle since last May. He uses one Belgian waffle iron, with which he can make three menu items working slightly ahead. For larger events like weddings, he fires up a second waffle iron.

Beck and I placed our orders, then sat for some waffle talk while we waited. The semi-regular treat and tradition of weekend waffles were a big deal in the Beck family while he was growing up. He recalled his father, Chris, making the waffle batter from the “Fannie Farmer Cookbook,” the same recipe his grandmother used.

“I have a brother who uses Bisquick for the batter,” Chris Beck told me later. “And that’s just sacrilegious.”

His father would pour the batter into a Black + Decker waffle iron that has been in the family for 60 years. “That’s what I was raised on,” Chris Beck added. “It’s one of the simple pleasures in life. And if you have a good waffle iron, they’re easier to make than pancakes.”

Beck has fond memories of staying at his grandmother’s camp in Vermont in the summer, when his aunts, uncles and cousins would get in on the Sunday morning waffle action, too. “It was lovely, the whole scenario,” he said of the family waffle brunches. “We were lucky enough to be right on a lake at her camp, eating off metal plates on a beautiful, sunny morning in July that was somehow still cold.”

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When he was 10, his parents gave him a waffle stick maker for his birthday. “Charlie took to being the preparer of the waffles. He loved to make them for other people,” said his mom, Laurie Beck.

Over time, young Beck perfected his methods, learning to pour batter into the iron so that it spread evenly when pressed, and finding the perfect accompaniments, which more often than not were simply butter and real Vermont or Maine maple syrup. He came to prefer Grade A rich-tasting amber over the sweeter, milder golden grade of syrup.

“As an adult, I put away childish things and went for more flavorful syrup,” he said.

DIMPLE SIZE MATTERS

Kehoe served us our waffles, including the truck’s namesake Pink Waffle, made with strawberry shortcake batter, fresh strawberries, whipped cream and strawberry sauce, and a savory cornbread-jalapeno waffle topped with pulled pork, Alabama white barbecue sauce and chimichurri.

The cornbread-jalapeno waffle with pulled pork, Alabama white barbecue sauce and chimichurri from The Pink Waffle food truck. Photo by Tim Cebula

The strawberry waffle was delightful on a sunny spring morning. But the pulled pork waffle won the day. The waffle itself had full cornbread flavor, yet stayed light, airy and crispy throughout, without any of the gumminess cornbread can have. The jalapeno added pleasant heat that didn’t overpower.

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The well-seasoned and succulent braised pork paired well with the tangy, garlicky white barbecue sauce (traditionally a mix of mayo, white vinegar and black pepper) and the vibrant chimichurri herb sauce. “Even though it’s a waffle, it tastes and feels like a well-rounded dish,” Beck concluded.

Beck examined a forkful of plain waffle that we ordered so he could judge it cleanly. While he prefers thinner, American-style waffles to inch-and-a-half-thick Belgians, he noted that The Pink Waffle’s Belgian-style waffles aren’t much over an inch thick, making them easier to eat and enjoy.

“I like the dimples in waffles, but I don’t want to feel like I could drink out of them. With really thick Belgians, the dimples feel like cups,” explained Beck. He ate the forkful of plain waffle, closed his eyes and smiled. He proclaimed it crispy yet fluffy and just sweet enough, with a deliciously doughy chew.

“This is what I’m looking for in a waffle,” Beck said.

But our work was not yet complete.

The next morning, Beck and I bellied up to a table at The Sinful Kitchen. “I can’t get that cornbread waffle out of my mind,” Beck said as he browsed the Sinful Kitchen menu. Glancing at the French toast selections, he divulged that he considers a baguette to be half a loaf of bread, and a few orders of French toast waiting to happen.

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Beck ordered the cinnamon roll waffle, topped with cream cheese icing, cinnamon sugar butter and whipped cream, and I chose the peanut butter cup waffle topped with chopped Reese’s, chocolate and peanut butter sauces and whipped cream. “I love it when grown-ups order the peanut butter cup waffle,” Sinful Kitchen co-owner Denae Mallari said, so I knew I’d made the right choice.

EVIL TREATS 

Mallari explained that her husband, chef and co-owner Dave Mallari, uses two waffle irons for regular waffle production, and a third iron dedicated exclusively to gluten-free waffles, to avoid cross-contamination. The Sinful Kitchen doesn’t offer pancakes, but Mallari said their waffles are very popular.

The Sinful Kitchen chef-owner Dave Mallari makes a waffle order. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Beck loved the cinnamon roll waffle, deeming it on par with the cornbread waffle at The Pink Waffle. “The icing isn’t too sharp, either. Sometimes cream cheese frosting can have a little twang.”

He said his family labeled dishes like this – caloric beasts that are addictively tasty – as “evil.” Still, he said the cinnamon roll waffles weren’t so candy-sweet or decadent they felt like dessert. “They’re delicious, but not that evil,” he said.

The peanut butter cup waffles, then, were straight from Satan’s cookbook. Decadent doesn’t do the experience justice. Love is too weak a word to describe my feelings for those waffles, which may have actually approached lust until my sugar high peaked and I got the syrup sweats.

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Many folks might have gone home after a gut-busting brunch like this feeling ready for a nap. Not us. Our waffle crawl had one more stop, and because we are pros, we dabbed the goo from our chins and headed off to Stacks Pancake Co.

Stacks had the largest waffle selection we’d found so far, with more than 10 dishes to choose from, including Dutch apple waffles, peach walnut waffles and praline waffles. After our meal at The Sinful Kitchen, Beck wisely opted for plain Belgians here, with just butter and syrup. I went for the mini waffles Benedict – small waffles topped with Canadian bacon, poached eggs and Hollandaise sauce – because I apparently have no self-discipline whatsoever.

Beck found the Stacks waffles milder than the others we’d tried, making them less desirable for plain waffles, but just the thing when you top your waffles with another whole breakfast, like eggs Benedict. The basic batter made a good blank canvas for the salty ham and buttery yolk sauce.

Beck’s father told me later that he’d devised a waffle dish of his own back in the day that the family came to love. He’d put bacon strips that weren’t quite fully crisped into the waffle iron with the batter, so the waffles would be stuffed with bacon. “That was the evil treat,” he chuckled.

Chris Beck is a man who knows his evil treats. He also makes grilled cheese sandwiches in a waffle iron, listening for melted cheese to sizzle into crispy frico on the iron to know when the sandwiches were done.

Now, after we’d finished the waffle crawl, Beck said his months-long craving was finally sated. “Actually,” he told me five days later, “I think I’ll be good with waffles for a while.”

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He said he was happy to learn of other excellent waffle options in town. Beck has long known that Portland is a top-tier food city, but also that it’s a work in progress. In this way, he holds out hope we’ll see more waffle-bearing menus around town in the near future.

“You shouldn’t have to really hunt for waffles. We’re spoiled for choice in that we have so many great chefs, cooks and restaurants in this town,” he said. “But you need the full spectrum.”


WAFFLES

If you are still having trouble finding waffles in Portland’s restaurants, try making them yourself. This recipe, from the “Fannie Farmer Cookbook,” is the Beck family’s go-to version. To prevent sticking, be sure your waffle iron is properly seasoned before you use it.

1½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk or part cream
2 eggs, beaten
3 tablespoons melted butter or vegetable oil

Sift together the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt. Put the milk, eggs and butter (or oil) in a large glass jar with a tight cover. Add the flour mixture and shake hard until well blended (10 or 15 times). Or place in a big pitcher and beat by hand or with an electric beater. The batter doesn’t need to be perfectly smooth. If the batter is thicker than heavy cream, add a little more milk. A thin batter makes more tender waffles.

Follow the instructions with your waffle iron for heating and greasing the pan. Then pour the batter into the waffle compartment near the center, the batter will spread to fill the iron. The amount of batter you need will depend on the size of your waffle iron, but don’t overfill it. Cover and leave the waffle iron closed until the waffle stops steaming. The waffles should be well puffed and delicately brown. Lift from the iron with a fork. The first waffle is sometimes inclined to stick. Bake it a little longer to be sure you can lift it out easily. The others should be no problem.

Serve with melted butter and warmed maple syrup.

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