It’s all about family (and food) at Joe’s Pancake House

The very fortunate fabric of the American dining experience is the tried-and-true diner.

No matter what scope of pay grade, theological leanings, or political preference, a good old-fashioned coffee shop is a place of refuge for everybody. It’s just that feeling of walking in, being greeted by a friendly staff that has the patina of having worked there long before you received your driver’s license, booths filled with locals and travelers tucked deep into hearty plates of comforting goodness and the ever-present counter.

That counter is where the action is. The servers talk loudly to one another, sometimes nearly yelling at a regular if they want another refill, all the while dancing that busy restaurant step in heated improvised syncopation as platters of food clack out of the kitchen window.

Joe's Pancake House

Photo by Mark Whittaker

The American diner is a safe haven. And oftentimes, a rather tasty one at that.

Joe’s Pancake House here in Tucson is no exception, outside of being exceptional. Nestled nearly inconspicuously on the corner of Kolb and Golf Links Road, Joe’s has been an eastside eating institution since 1984.

A Family tradition

The tale of its inception is one that is all-American as well. A man by the name of Joseph Abi-Ad migrated to Tucson from Lebanon on the accounts of a good friend working an oil rig who invited him to come and visit. Joseph liked Tucson so much that he decided to stay and call this desert hamlet home. Having very little money or experience in western culture, Joseph decided to cook American-style breakfasts in a spot near his house that offered him a small space to do so.

That spot was a Tastee-Freez. That spot would later become Joe’s Pancake House.

Joe's Pancake House

Mary Brindley and Joseph Abi-Ad (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Joseph set up his makeshift kitchen between pinball machines and a soda fountain, walked across the parkway, bought eggs, bacon, and such from a supermarket, then began cranking out breakfasts for the neighboring community. In a Tastee-Freez.

“He would make maybe ten dollars a day the first week, then twenty the next, and pretty soon he was actually making a living off of cooking breakfast,” said Mary Brindley.

Brindley is Joseph’s daughter who has been running and managing Joe’s side by side with her father since, well, about the time she got her driver’s license.

“This is a 100% family-owned and operated business,” says Brindley. “Always has been and it always will be.”

Thing is, managing Joe’s for Mary is a unique task for her, or anybody really, to say the least, because Mary lives in Dallas.

Yes, that Dallas. Dallas, Texas.

Her husband got a promotion that he could not pass up so they had to relocate. She now runs Joe’s via phone and computer but makes it back to Tucson as often as she can for meetings, tasting new recipes, to give Joe a bit of a break, and also for one big important reason.

“My mom and dad need their grand-baby time,” Brindley says with a smile, referring to her two daughters.

Joe's Pancake House

Photo by Mark Whittaker

Award-winning experiences

Now one would think that a popular diner who has received multiple “Best Breakfast in Tucson” reader’s choice awards through the Arizona Daily Star wouldn’t add or subtract dishes if the math is correct. But they do.

Their menu, outside of the required eggs, griddle cakes, soups, salads, and sandwiches, includes our sought-after southwest staples such as Beef or Chicken Tacos ($10.99), Enchiladas ($11.99), and Chilaquiles with either beef ($11.99) or chicken ($10.99), all of which feature sauces, salsas, and meats that are made in house. One thing is for sure, you have to try any and all breakfast items that feature their homemade chorizo. It normally isn’t expected to find real caliber chorizo in a coffee shop but this is Tucson after all.

Joe's Pancake House

Photo by Mark Whittaker

The burgers are juicy and delicious and the breakfast specials will please any hungry lumberjack. On Tuesday, do yourself a favor and get the spaghetti lunch special with homemade meat sauce and praise be to the almighty club sandwich because the one served at Joe’s in a tiered display of diner glory necessity.

Gyros are typically found in Greek restaurants but seeing as it is a close cousin to the shawarma, a predominant street food favorite in Lebanon, Joe’s offers one that is both generous in portion and generous in flavor and authenticity.

Passing the torch

“I plan on introducing Lebanese dishes as specials in the near future,” informs Brindley, “most likely when I take the business over from my dad.”

That’s right, fans and feasters of Joe’s. The patriarch Joseph Abi-Ad is looking to step down at some point and the only successor to the cozy empire of eats is of course, Mary. As she said, Joe’s is and will always be a family-run business.

“It’s not happening anytime really soon, but he is looking to retire and I can run Joe’s as an owner remotely,” said Brindley. “Thing is, I really don’t want to stop working because once you do that you start to get old. When we make the switch we will have to cross that bridge as far as me being here. We have no intention of taking Joe’s away from our customers. Joe’s is definitely here to stay.”

Joe's Pancake House

Photo by Mark Whittaker

Oh, and when you visit Joe’s be sure to make note of the wall decorated with framed images from the 1999 released movie “Three Kings.” That’s because Joe and Mary are in it when it was filming in Casa Grande. So, as you partake in those pancakes of Joe’s namesake, you can stare into the deep blue eyes of George Clooney and wonder if he likes his eggs poached, scrambled, or sunny-side-up.

It’s hardboiled actually. I had to look it up.

The diner is open every day of the year and its hours of operation are 6 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Monday – Saturday, 7 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Sunday, and 7 a.m. – 1 p.m. on major holidays. Joe’s Pancake House is located at 2532 S. Kolb Rd. For more information, visit joespancakehousetucson.com and follow Joe’s on Facebook or Instagram.

It was a Sonoran hot dog that made Mark switch from music journalism to food writing when he moved to Tucson from San Francisco in 2006. He hasn’t been the same since.

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