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You Gotta Try This: Florida’s famed Old Spanish Sugar Mill

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com

It’s already August 1, but I can’t let summer slip away without telling you about one of my favorite restaurant meals of 2013.

The food wasn’t prepared by a chef and the restaurant wasn’t even located in Austin, but enough people visit the Orlando area every year, I figure it’s an eatery worth telling you about here.

Since 1961, the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Grill and Griddle House, located inside DeLeon Springs State Park about an hour north of Orlando and half an hour west of Daytona, has been serving make-your-own pancakes that customers prepare on griddles in the middle of each of the wooden tables. The restaurant is housed in an old mill right next to a natural springs pool that rivals Barton Springs in its beauty, size, popularity and water temperature. (There’s even an underwater cave in the middle of the pool that SCUBA divers can explore.)

This summer, I had the chance to revisit the Old Spanish Sugar Mill, which I first went to as a kid. Though I was born and mostly raised in Missouri, we spent about six years living outside Orlando when I was about the same age that my son, Julian, is now.

I was curious to see how the make-your-own pancake concept would stand up to adult standards, and I was not disappointed. We arrived early on a Thursday morning, which meant we were seated immediately, a drastic difference from the three- to four-hour wait on a typical weekend morning. (A sign outside the restaurant encourages guests to put their name on the waiting list and then kill time by swimming in the springs, walking on the park trails or taking a boat excursion on the nearby waterways.)

Although the restaurant does have sandwiches and salads on the menu, I’ve never seen anyone there not eating the pancakes. In the kitchen, the restaurant staff makes three kinds of batters: a traditional batter made with unbleached white flour, another made with a blend of five different stoneground flours and a relatively new gluten-free/vegan batter. You can also order pancake toppings such as apples, bananas, blueberries, applesauce, pecans, peanut butter or chocolate chips to sprinkle in your batter.

As we placed our order for the five-flour batter ($4.95 per person; kids under 6 are free if an adult is getting pancakes) and a few side orders of bacon, eggs and chocolate chips ($1.85 for each side), the server flipped a switch under the table to turn on the electric griddle right in the middle of the table. (As a kid, it always seemed like a safety hazard to have customers cooking over a hot surface, but the restaurant is still going strong after 50 years, so I presume the number of actual injuries are few.)

A few minutes later, the server returned with pitchers of batter, a bowl with a few uncracked eggs, a few plastic spatulas and a can of cooking spray. With starving kids who couldn’t wait another second for breakfast, we got to work on the pancakes, spraying the griddle with the nonstick oil and pouring circles of batter. Taking the servers advice on when to flip (when the air bubbles that come to the surface start to pop), we finished up the pancakes and got to work on the eggs, which, as the cook of your own breakfast, you get to prepare however you’d like.

Without any air conditioning and all those hot griddles blazing, the restaurant was hotter than I remembered and the bacon, which the staff thankfully prepares in the restaurant kitchen, came out after we’d almost finished our meal, but the pancakes were so much better than any I can remember eating in the almost three decades since I was there last. They were light, airy and full of flavor, so much so that I held up (and annoyed) the server by asking so many questions about the freshly ground wheat.

Unfortunately, he didn’t have as many answers as I was hoping about where the grain came from and when and how it was actually processed, but at that point, I didn’t really care. We were ready for a dip in the springs and a stroll through the striking moss-covered oaks.

The restaurant is open every day of the year except Thanksgiving and Christmas. The hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and holidays. Get there early or sneak in just before closing, but don’t skip this little Florida gem if you’re in the area.

Bring your swimsuits, $6 per car for admission to the state park and a little patience if you arrive during a busy service, and it’ll be the most memorable (not to mention cheapest) meal of your trip.