Bacon in the dark of night: stories from the Hotcake House

It’s early Wednesday morning. Like really, really, early—1:30 a.m. early and I’m walking toward the iconic sign on the right side of Powell Boulevard going east. If you’ve been in Portland long enough you know what that sign means, and you know what you’ll find inside the single wooden door outlined by bright blue paint.

You can always anticipate crunchy, fresh hash browns next to a hotcake that’s bigger than your hand, or hot chocolate with whip cream dripping off the sides making whole fingers sticky. The iconic neon’s colors of yellow, red and blue remind you that at any time you can order hand-cut organic steak, “New York Style.”

The Original Hotcake House is a Portland gem. It’s the place where if the walls could talk, they’d have a lot to say. The OHH dates back to the 1950s, when the 24-hour restaurant first opened. If you’re from Portland or have hung around after hours long enough, you know by now that there aren’t a lot of places that are open 24 hours. You can probably count on 1.5 hands the amount of restaurants or coffee shops, so it’s kind of a big deal.

When you walk through the doors of the OHH, a jukebox will fill your ears with different types of music that cover the music spectrum from Godsmack to Kendrick Lamar’s new album. People are constantly queuing up songs and shimmying and shaking it in line while waiting to place their order.

The OHH isn’t full of just your stereotypical Portland twenty-something-year-old crowd dotting the outline of a cigarette pack in the back of their worn out blue jeans. The OHH is smorgasbord of Portland folk from all walks of life. Some are taking a few minutes to get out of the rain, to close their eyes and have a cup of black coffee. The OHH allows one free refill and you get it yourself.

In one of the extra big corner booths, there’s a family of five eating cheaply before a busy day. Next to the family is a single older lady talking quietly to herself. She takes a paper napkin from her table and wipes what looks like a tear coming down her cheek.

On this very early Wednesday morning, the OHH exudes a quiet hum. I won’t have to wait long for my hot chocolate, fried egg and crunchy hash browns.

I sat down next to Miles, an audio engineer who just moved back to Portland from Los Angeles. He’s now a recreational marijuana grower and finishes his workdays between 1:30–2 a.m. just down the street. “There’s not a lot of 24-hour places around here,” Miles says. “Coming from Los Angeles, where everything is accessible, you miss it.”

Miles says a lot of weird things happen at the Hotcake House, which he frequents twice a week. “It comes with being open 24 hours,” Miles explained while contorting his head in an up and down motion. “Once a bunch of undesirables came in here causing a ruckus, a bunch of rocker headbangers. They put a death metal song on the jukebox and were all standing there and, like, just rocking out.”

Three Portland State students sit directly across from Miles, and they explain that although two of them went to high school nearby, this is only their second or third time at the restaurant. “We come here because there’s good hotcakes and it’s open,” one student said.

At this point my food’s being brought out, steam pilling off of the plate. Austin, who works practically every job at the restaurant, picks up the red piece of plastic with the black outline of two numbers and sets down my food. “Enjoy,” he said.

I sat down next with Pete and Randy, two men in their forties. Pete’s been coming to the OHH since the early 2000s. “This has the best viability for late night, and there’s always consistency with their food,” Pete said. “It’s always the same. If you order an egg a certain way it’s going to be that way. I’ve never had to send shit back.”

Randy only slept three hours the night before and ended up at IHOP. “This is way better than IHOP, way classier,” Randy said.

Pete chimed in to explain that when you’re at the OHH, you’re sitting with history. I nodded in agreement. “I mean, think about it,” Pete said. “How many people have sat in this booth? It’s really amazing to see an old place like this that’s still alive. The face of Portland has changed, but this place seems to stay the same.”

Lynyrd Skynyrd began to blare from the jukebox as Randy got up to find some foil. “I can’t eat all this!” Randy exclaimed.

As Randy sat back down, he began talking about a recent love interest. “Even this vegan–acupuncture, fake–medicine lady,” Randy explained, “even she knew that this was the place to meet. We met here several times just because she knew it is iconic. People that aren’t fucking real and true, you won’t run into them in this real place.”

Randy explained how if you don’t know this place you’ll most likely drive by Powell and not even give a double-take because the building doesn’t seem as cool as other Portland restaurants.

“When you enter somebody’s business there’s a certain standard that happens,” Randy said. “Here you get your own water, your own silverware. You’re going to get good food, good portions, and you’re going to be full and not break the wallet. That’s what you want.”

It’s now sometime past 2 a.m. and Randy tells Pete that he has to “hit the hay soon.” As they both get up to leave, Pete stops to shake my hand. “Look, it’s a good time,” Pete said. “Everyone is here after just coming in to get some food, everyone is in a good mood, all different kinds of people of different walks of life, ages. People sitting here having a good time, it always smells good in here and there’s a good vibe—always.”

As Pete and Randy leave, I’ve got the booth to myself for a few minutes. An affectionate couple stands in line and dances with each other. The usual buzz of Powell Boulevard is quiet tonight as most people are at home sleeping. An inebriated man sits toward the right side of the restaurant with his head still upright but his eyes closed.

I think about getting another cup of coffee, but before I do I’m joined by Menson, a joyful looking man from Micronesia. Menson has  worked as an OHH cook for the last eight years, usually clocking between 60 and 70 hours weekly.

His shirt tells observers that he knows how to cook the whole menu with the stained remnants of different sauces and the secret hotcake batter mix.

Menson tells me about his favorite customer who comes in weekly and orders the same thing. “He works at a bank and is Mexican. He’s a really really good guy,” Menson says while smiling. “He always orders the New York steak medium rare with a sunnyside up egg. He used to get hashbrowns but changed his order to fries and orders a large sprite with no ice and a side of sourdough toast.”

One of Menson’s favorite things about the OHH is that his manager comes in and does all the jobs that the other workers do. Menson tells me that if he could have customers understand one thing, it would be that he wishes they wouldn’t rush the cooks. “Be patient, that will really help us,” Menson says. “We bring out the food the way they want it and how we’re supposed to cook it.”

Manson gets back up from the booth and starts back to the kitchen, making a quick stop by the jukebox to play his favorite song. Austin, the server who originally delivered my food, comes over to hand me his phone.

“Here, read this,” Austin says. “I’ll be over in a bit.”

I take his phone and start reading the Android’s screen. He’s brought up a paper for a WR121 class he took at PSU. The paper is titled “Observation,” and it’s an exercise where students were assigned to observe and write about someone doing their job.

Austin decided to observe his older brother Corey, who worked at the OHH for 15 years before Austin took over. As I’m scrolling and reading his essay, it’s obvious that he loves this place, and he loved watching his older brother work.

Austin described the positive atmosphere of the OHH and how most people knew his older brother well. He wrote about how good the food is and how he loves all the songs that come from the jukebox. As I finish up reading, Austin comes down and sits across from me.

Austin is 24 years old and one of those guys who is beaming all the time. Austin’s demeanor is inviting, friendly, and kind. It’s no wonder that as he sits across from me, four different people who walk through the OHH door come by to say hello. You’d never know that when he first started working at the Hotcake House he took theater lessons to help him with his shyness and nervousness.

“I started sweating every time I used to take an order [when I started],” Austin said.

Now, he’s confident in his work at the OHH. “I do everything,” Austin explains. “The dishes, cooking, and security. Occasionally I tell people that they need to calm down or get out, probably about once a month we have to call the cops.” Austin points out how calling the police is his least favorite part of the job, but acknowledges that someone has to do it.

Austin also has to remind people often that they have to order before sitting down at a table. “A lot of times, since people are drunk and having a good time, they are going to do whatever they are going to do,” Austin says. “I have to get mean sometimes, and it’s the only time I have any problem.

Austin explains how the OHH never closes down for the night, no matter what’s going on. “We will be open,” Austin says. “Business is business.”

In the future, Austin wants to open a community center or an arcade—a place for everyone, no matter who they are, who can participate and have fun. I point out how, in a way, he’s already getting his training at the OHH.

“You know what? That’s right,” Austin says with a smile.