At Oak Cliff's Spiral Diner, a Vegan Pancake Champ is Crowned

Categories: Whimsy
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Patrick Michels
Eric Mason, right, is the humblest guy he knows. Mario Sanchez, left, is full.
See our slideshow for more photos from the contest.

Vegan breakfast has never been as hard-core as it was in Oak Cliff yesterday at Spiral Diner's pancake-eating showdown, held in honor of the Dallas location's one-year anniversary.

The contest drew a full table of eaters, including a few who work at Spiral Diner, along with some friends and family. Seated at one end with an all-business demeanor that said he expected to win, was truck driver Eric Mason. It wasn't just his body language -- Mason said it too: "I'll be winning," he offered as an introduction. "I will write my name in vomit on the ground before I go home empty-handed."

As it happened, he came dangerously close to doing both.

Sundays have seen plenty of ad hoc contests in the past at the diner's all-day pancake buffet, but this was a timed affair, a five-minute sprint into the history books.

The difference was clear to Mick Weldon, a competitor and also a cook and manager at the restaurant. Going into the contest, Weldon said he held the record with 20 pancakes in one sitting. "That wasn't a contest, though, that was just a lazy Sunday." As a marathon eater who prefers to take his time, he said the five minute contest could leave him disadvantaged, though when asked to estimate his upcoming pancake tally, Weldon considered it for a moment, then gave an ambitious response. "Probably about 342," he said, "give or take a couple hundred."

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Patrick Michels
The pancakes.
He pointed over at a big guy by the kitchen with a bright orange T-shirt and gauge earrings. Mario, he said, was a speed eater who probably had the best shot of anyone there. Minutes later, Mario Sanchez was back at the table with a small dish, swirling together a pancake-lubricating mix of vegan butter and syrup. Nearby eaters, initially disgusted, quickly followed suit -- nobody wants to shove a dry pancake down their gullet, they realized. This was a mark of a more experienced, or at least more thoughtful, competitor, and as Sanchez predicted he'd finish with at least 17 pancakes he seemed loose and ready to go.

Down at the far end of the table, though, Mason wasn't fazed. Sanchez wouldn't be trouble, he said. "There's zero chance I lose this," he said.

Owner Amy McNutt called for the contest to start, and the five minutes passed quickly for all but those sitting at the table. Waiters and cooks counted each eater's total while Theater Fire's Curtis Heath supplied a hillbilly romp soundtrack with his urgent banjo. "They don't actually eat to the rhythm," Heath said. "I just hope it throws them off their game."

Pretty much what happens anytime someone picks up a banjo.

Most of the table faded early, but at opposite ends of the table Sanchez and Mason kept up a furious pace, rolling, dipping and stuffing one pancake after the next while waiters laid more on their plates. When time ran out and Sanchez's total of 16 pancakes was announced, the congratulations came fast until Mason's scorekeeper announced that he too had completed the hexadecafecta.

It was a surprise development, but the crew quickly called for a short tie-breaker, discounting less palatable options like declaring the contest a draw, or staging the "purge-off" someone suggested. To the two finalists' horror, though, round two ended with another tie -- six pancakes apiece.

This time, nobody knew what to do next. Calls for another tie-breaker came quickly, but sounded less sure than before. What if the next round of pancakes was one too many? Who would want to live with that on their conscience? Behind the table, Mason and Sanchez looked completely at the mob's mercy, so when talk turned to calling it a draw, the eaters offered quiet agreement -- not that they wanted to leave things unresolved, but if it's what the crowd wanted, and it meant not eating another pancake, well...

But there was only one plaque for the winner, and plenty of pancakes left in the kitchen. The diner's founders, McNutt and James Johnston, took control, telling the finalists they'd have a minute to down as many more pancakes as they could. After yet another dramatic countdown, the call to eat went up and Mason shoved more pancakes into his mouth. At his right, Sanchez slowly rolled up a single cake and began taking slow, thoughtful nibbles. After 30 seconds, Mario tapped the table in submission while most of the crowd gleefully ignored him so Mason would keep on eating.



That's Mason climbing down off the chair to spit his half-chewed pancake into a paper cup. He got back on the chair once he could talk, lording his victory over the crowd and launching into Stallone's big speech from Rocky IV. He wasn't swarmed by flag-waving fans when he stepped back down, but Eric Mason's meaning was clear. "If I can change, and you can change... everybody can change," he said.

It had been a good day, maybe the best of days, for all those who dream of eating too much food and no meat.
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