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Hidden Gems: Shelly’s Cafe in Tampa whips up the perfect pancakes

Shelly’s Cafe, located 14837 N Florida Avenue in Tampa, is one of the most celebrated restaurants in the city of its massive, and eclectic selection of pancakes.

For the past two years, N Florida Ave’s Shelly’s Café has been one of Tampa’s most bustling brunch destinations. In 2017, however, things looked different.

“When we first opened, the restaurant was completely dead,” shared owner, Shelly Nyugen, walking me through the space. “The first few months we would only fill one or two tables at a time…It was hard to put that much effort into something and not see it work right away.”

The aromatic scent of sweet batter wafted from the distant kitchen. My eyes drifted to the visible stretch of stovetops where her husband, Yen Chiu, effortlessly flipped two golden-brown beauties. Noticing my shifted gaze, she continued.

Providing that mom-and-pop feeling

“Yen and I have no culinary experience. We were actually supposed to open the restaurant in January of 2017, but pushed it off until May, because we needed more time to perfect our pancake recipe. In the beginning, I thought that maybe that’s why we weren’t getting any people.”

We moved through a large, wooden doorway into the warm kitchen. Yen smiled and waved, dropping silver-dollar dough-dollops onto the sizzling grill. As he cooked, Shelly grabbed a basket of fresh fruit and began to slice.

“Since day one, every dish has been cooked by my husband and plated by me. It takes a little extra time, but I think consistency is key. I want every customer in the restaurant to feel that mom-and-pop feeling. If you’re coming to Shelly’s Café, you’re going to have food made by Shelly.”

Yen slid a hot plate of flapjacks across the counter. Shelly aesthetically arranged the cut fruit above them.

“In the end, I think that extra care is what finally got customers talking. I never read our online reviews, but, after a year, our tables slowly started filling—and famous people came in!” She dropped her head with a small laugh, “So I knew there was word of mouth going around.”

A restaurant grown through word of mouth

Word of mouth is exactly right. In fears of bruised self-esteem, the couple has steered clear of press coverage and largely avoids social media. They don’t look at their Yelp ratings (though they are near flawless), and take their time responding to emails. Thus, Shelly’s Café relies purely on the loyal words of their satisfied customers, and, given that the restaurant is completely packed all the time, those “regulars” are definitely chatting.

Like most others, I heard of Shelly’s through a friend who claimed that the homegrown hole-in-the-wall makes the best pancakes in the Bay. What my colleague failed to mention, though, is which specific dish to order when visiting. Luckily for me, however, Shelly and Yen know their game, and provided me with a diverse sampling of all of their best.

With those delicious plates in mind, and National Pancake Day(!) on the horizon, I share the highlights below.

So, pancake lovers—get ready, because no one stacks up to these stacks.

The Sweet Necessities

“Shelly’s Pancakes”

When embarking on a pancake tasting, the owner’s namesake dish is probably a good place to start—especially when it’s also the best-selling item on the menu. And, topped only with an assortment of cool berries, the “Shelly’s Pancakes” provide the quickest route to a mouthful of the
couples’ famed buttermilk cakes.

Though the perfectly symmetrical short-stack is fluffy, powdered sugar-dusted, and Instagram-able, the real standout component of Shelly’s classic pancakes is their decadent butter crust. Grilled to order on a butter-greased stove, each pancake marinates in hot, melted decadence, leaving them with an almost flash-fried crunch around the edges.

After growing up with a Dutch grandma, I’ve determined that this is the only way a pancake should be prepared—and Shelly’s has mastered the art.

Chicken and Pancakes

We’ve all heard of chicken and waffles, but let’s be real: pancakes are just better. Especially adorable, golden-brown mini ones.

In their Chicken and Pancake dish, Shelly and Yen feature a half-sized portion of their acclaimed pancakes alongside two juicy strips of fried chicken that, according to diners, “Is better than Popeye’s and everyone’s.” When downing this delicacy, I’d suggest ordering an extra side of Shelly’s secret “Shelly Sauce.” I don’t know what’s in that little cup of orange magic, but you’ll definitely want two.

Pancake Egg Sandwich

How do you make a pancake breakfast even better? Slap some eggs and cheese on it and call it brunch.

Cleverly layering American cheese, runny yolks, and your choice of meat between two sizzling flapjacks, Shelly’s Pancake Egg Sandwich delivers a salty-sweet juxtaposition that’s sure to satisfy all your mid-morning cravings.

Oh, and about that choice of meat—yes. You can use the fried chicken.

A butter-coated celebration

National Pancake Day, which I mentioned earlier as quickly approaching, has deep historical roots. The day before Lent, this holiday—AKA Shrove Tuesday—was traditionally used by Christians to rid their pantries of indulgences such as butter, flour, or eggs. Today, however, that tradition has long since faded into antiquity. In other words, you’re totally free to grab a booth at Shelly’s anytime. And, as you chow down on a butter-coated short-stack from your cozy seat, you’ll be thankful that the past is in the past.

Those eager to get their pancake fix can visit Shelly’s Café at 14837 N Florida Ave. For take-out/delivery details, prospective diners can call the restaurant at (813) 373 6108, or explore their official Facebook page.

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