By Greg Brown
The Pancake Circus on Broadway is known for their head-sized pancakes, cool neon sign, waitresses who call you “hon” and of course the kitschy clown theme. But the real gem of the breakfast joint is manager Terri Mead and her amazing array of homemade soups.
It was a dreary, overcast day in Sacramento when I dropped in at the Pancake Circus. Perfect soup weather. The restaurant was packed with an eclectic mix of customers. All the old school vinyl booths were filled with hungry diners so I headed for the end of the breakfast counter. That’s when I met manager Terri Mead, who was all dolled up in a retro red dress and some cool leather boots.
She had me try a trio of homemade soups while she tended to all the patrons as well as the employees — the French Onion, Chicken and Rice, and my favorite, the Portuguese Bean soup. All of the soup is homemade, fresh and local. The linguisa for the Portuguese Bean soup comes from Gustine, a central valley town steeped in Portuguese tradition. As Terri puts it, “My soup is a meal.” It certainly was a meal. I’m not even a “soup guy” and I polished off the Portuguese bean soup quickly. That was some tasty soup; she should start a Soup Truck.
I also tasted the homemade French Onion soup, which had lots of onion and delicious homemade broth. The key to the French Onion soup is the homemade French bread topped with fresh cheddar and Gruyere cheese. Dunk it and it’s homemade deliciousness! I actually didn’t think I’d care for the French onion soup but I used Terri’s “one no-thank you bite theory…you may not like it, but just try it.” I liked it. A lot. I also gobbled up the Chicken and Rice soup, which was the soup of the day at the Pancake Circus. When it comes to the homemade soups, Terri “stirs them with love.”
It all started at the Sacramento Children’s Home on Sutterville Road when Terri was 4 years old. Her mother, who had no interest in raising children, sent Terri and her older sister to the orphanage. “It was a package deal,” Terri said. Her mother just “wanted a new life and was busy partying with her men” as Terri put it. In fact one of her mom’s boyfriends pulled some strings to get Terri and her sister into the Sacramento Children’s Home. Her Father remarried and didn’t have any time for Terri. Although she would occasionally run into him at Raley’s Supermarket on Freeport Boulevard (awkward on aisle 5), she never got a chance to tell him how she really felt about things.
The Orphanage is where Terri first got interested in cooking and hanging out in the kitchen. At the young tender age of 5 she would hang out in the kitchen with Viola and Ann, who ran the big kitchen at the Sacramento Children’s Home. Terri says, “I was trying to be the kid that everybody loved”. She’d watch, learn, and help out as Viola and Ann cooked up the homemade grub for the children at the orphanage.
Another cooking influence for Terri was her Grandmother who she calls Nana. When school was out Terri would spend summers with her Nana in Modoc County sitting and watching her make soup…all from scratch. Terri has carried that tradition on at the Pancake Circus. I asked her where were all the secret recipes and Terri said, “All in my head, Greg.” Good thing because somebody might steal them if they were on paper.
She always had people watching over her, including her older sister Claire, Viola, Ann, her housemother Mrs. Washington, and the Four Robin Hoods, a local non-profit organization. The Four Robin Hoods helped her find her first job at Hale’s Department Store in Sacramento folding towels. “They saw something in me, I was lucky”. She was able to leave the orphanage and move to a place in West Sacramento.
Despite not having a role model for a mother, Terri managed to successfully raise four children on her own or “All by myself” as she put it. The father, “had to go” due to some drug problems. He wasn’t much of a father to the children. They all graduated from McClatchy high school and have gone on to lead happy productive lives.
When Terri arrived at the Pancake Circus 14 years ago she noticed the restaurant needed a little tweaking, a bit of love, and plenty of her Nana’s soup recipes. After eating oatmeal and doing her pilates Terri puts in 12-hour days at the Pancake Circus because “she loves it.”
While I was at the restaurant I noticed Terri greeting, seating, and bantering with customers. She was also wiping down tables and refilling people’s coffee. Doing it all. She takes care of the customers as well as her employees. They all spoke very fondly of her.
Not only do the customers like her soups, her employees love them too.
Terri Merritt, one of the waitresses at the Pancake Circus said, “She’s a damn good cook, and the cheesy croutons …” Terri made a noise that you usually only hear between consenting adults. Terri tries to take home the leftovers when she can, “not many soup leftovers though.”
Terri Mead also makes a popular Italian Wedding soup. It’s so popular, one of the busboys always asks, “When are you making the Italian Wedding soup?”
Lori, another longtime waitress at the restaurant, told me Terri does a lot of things for the employees…including bringing in some homemade goodies. Cookies, cake, lemon bars, tamale pie…the works! Lori, who described herself as “Terri’s favorite”, brought me a slice of orange Bundt cake that she made for her. More tasty homemade goodness! Then Terri brought me some gluten free banana bread made with rice flour. A real treat – it had a scrumptious crunchy topping and was moist inside. I was getting stuffed!
Okay back to the soup! I asked Terri how many soups were in her repertoire and she said, “It’s endless” She’s always coming up with new soups. Some of the other soups in her repertoire include tomato bisque, albondigas soup, lima bean with ham hock, and the popular loaded baked potato soup. She uses fresh cream, bacon, fresh grated nutmeg…then she stopped herself and said, “Hey, I can’t tell you all my secrets”. What’s not a secret is she makes a soup stock with bone from Taylor’s Market. She also hits up all the local Farmer’s Markets. She even has a friend in Stockton who grows lima beans, black-eyed peas, basil, lavender, blueberries and whatever else Terri asks her to grow. Backyard farm to fork!
There are plenty of stories behind the homemade soups Terri Mead creates at the Pancake Circus. She puts her heart, soul, and personal history into each bowl. I was seduced by her soups. After spending time with Terri and the staff at Pancake Circus I can now say I’m a “Soup Guy.”