The first time Linda Ellis ordered the Dutch pancakes pannenkoeken, she asked for the bacon on the side. The waiter in the tiny Amsterdam cafe Le Soleil looked puzzled. He asked her to wait a moment, then went to the kitchen to consult the elderly proprietress.
"She was insulted," recalls Ellis, who was vacationing with friends. "She pushed him out of the way. She walked over to our table, and we all had our heads down because we knew she was upset. She said 'Bacon on the side will not. Be. Possible.'"
A native Chicagoan, Ellis fell in love with Holland on that first trip in 2001--the bikes, the easy pace, the friendly people, grumpy chefs notwithstanding. And she got hooked on the large, thin, crispy-edged pancakes eaten at all times of the day. Popular varieties of pannenkoeken come topped with apples and cinnamon, bananas, chocolate, and whipped cream, or, as in the case of Ellis's faux pas, bacon and cheese. But they can be served with any number of ingredients: Stroganoff, curry, salami, pineapple. "Sometimes it gets a little ridiculous," she says. "You can put anything on--sardines if you want."
Ellis made friends in the Netherlands and returned repeatedly. About two years ago she was working as a security guard at Lane Tech when she began dreaming of opening her own pannenkoeken house in Chicago. She revisited Amsterdam and Le Soleil several times, trying to find the courage to ask for help from its gruff owner, Nel.
"Let me get my nerve up," she thought. "Let me just ask. All she can do is say no." She offered to pay Nel (she never did learn to pronounce her last name) for training and to buy her recipes at $500 apiece. Nel accepted, and over several subsequent trips--"I stopped counting at six," she says--Ellis trained in her kitchen, learning the elements of the pannenkoeken trade. Her sister videotaped her so she could study and refine her technique back home.
She endured hardships and humiliations equal to that of any galley slave. Once Nel sent her out for the caramelized peanuts and Imperial brand dark chocolate sauce used on the chocolate-banana pannenkoeken, and Ellis, having trouble with Dutch pronunciation, returned with the wrong stuff. Nel turned her back on her. "I don't think she ever really warmed up," Ellis says. "That's just her personality."
Another time Ellis bought special pans to use in her restaurant, only to find they were too thin--they burned the pannenkoeken. To get the pricey heavy aluminum pans she needed she had to travel to an outlying neighborhood. On her last day in the country, after Nel had approved the pans, she made a second trip for two more--which happened to coincide with a train strike. She and a friend managed to find an alternate line that was still operating but had to walk miles to get to the store and back.
Back home Ellis teamed up with her daughter Gina Salgado, who would run the front of the house, and found a tiny space on Western in Lincoln Square--the cafe fits a mere seven tables. "I wanted to start small," she says. "I wanted to be able to control what we do quality-wise."
The menu's small too: a few egg dishes, regular buttermilk pancakes, and just three pannenkoeken--apple, chocolate-banana, and bacon and Havarti.
In July, when Ellis's lime green awning went up along with signs announcing the impending opening, the neighborhood and food bloggers took note of the novelty. The weekend after the opening on September 4, they were crushed, with some diners waiting up to an hour to squeeze in. Though they're still packed on the weekends, Salgado's hired more waitstaff, including her 16-year-old sister, and things have started going more smoothly--enough for Ellis to consider offering a few more pannenkoeken within the month. She's thinking of sliced pear, chocolate, and nuts and a version topped with ice cream that her old teacher serves.
4757 N. Western, 773-769-8800
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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Gina Salgado and Linda Ellis with chocolate-banana and apple-cinnamon pannekoeken photo by Paul L. Meredith.