When it comes to chicken and waffles, there are two kinds of people: doubters and devotees — no middle ground. The sweet and salty combination of crispy fried chicken and golden waffles suffused with syrup can be enjoyed in a number of East Bay restaurants and diners any time of day. I hope that this report might convince doubters to try the flavorful pairing, though they’ll also have to contend with one of life’s greatest mysteries: Is it dinner for breakfast… or breakfast for dinner?
We can trace the popularity of this dynamic combo to New York in the 1930s and ‘40s: precisely to the late night-or-is-it-early-morning crowd at Wells Supper Club, a restaurant in Harlem. Wells provided a satisfying post-gig dinner/early breakfast for jazz musicians and their audience regulars.
One of the Wells hotspot’s regulars, Herb Hudson, introduced this ‘round midnight repast to the West Coast, opening the now famous Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles in Hollywood in 1976 (currently with eight other locations in the area). Old timers may recall that Oakland once had a Roscoe’s, located at 336 Grand Ave at Perkins. The Home of Chicken and Waffles in Jack London Square was originally a franchise of Roscoe’s but has been family owned since 2004. More on this later.
To its cred, chicken and waffles gets a mention in both music and literature: Famed jazz trumpeter and band leader, Bunny Berigan — possibly fueled by the dish — recorded a “jaunty” tribute to chicken and waffles with his band, The Blue Boys, in 1935. (What came first: the chicken or the song?) In his 1941 novel, Mildred Pierce, set in 1931 in Glendale, California, James M. Cain describes his main character as she plans to open an eponymous chicken and waffle restaurant:
In her mind’s eye, she could already see the neon sign, a neat blue one, without red or green in it:
Chicken Waffles Pies
If she opened a joint like this today, people would show up in droves, and not just for the free parking. The literary version was an immediate success, predating the actual appearance (and popularity) of Roscoe’s in Hollywood by decades.
A bit of a deep dive into more history: By many accounts, Thomas Jefferson picked up a variety of kitchen gadgets on a trip to Europe in the late 1700s. Among his acquisitions were four (all the sources I found agree on this number) waffle irons from Amsterdam. But waffles were already a thing in the Americas, thanks to Dutch colonists in the 1600s.
(According to my battered copy of The American Heritage Cookbook, “The Dutch introduced waffles to America. It was their custom, when they settled in New York, to give a new bride a waffle iron with her initials and the date of her wedding carved into it.”)
Jefferson’s waffle irons kicked off a waffle movement that spread throughout the colonies. The Pennsylvania Dutch are generally credited with the first pairing of chicken and waffles, but their preparation tended toward boiled chicken covered with gravy.
Today, the chicken is served fried, using seasonings and preparation methods unique to the individual chef. Let’s take a look at what we have here in the East Bay for the chicken and waffles curious.
Note: This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of every restaurant that serves chicken and waffles, just a starting place on your journey.
Aunt Mary’s Café
What stands out about Aunt Mary’s version of chicken and waffles is the yeasted waffle made with grits. This waffle is a marvel: delicately crisp on the outside and seriously creamy on the inside. If you love grits and waffles, this is the way to get the best of both.
The fried chicken is seasoned with cayenne, salt, pepper, garlic, and onion powder and is presented in dramatic fashion, with a knife, dagger-like, inserted into the waffle. Sage gravy and pure maple syrup are available for a small upcharge, and you can choose a breast or a thigh when you order.
The flavor and texture combination of this version — sweet, savory, crunchy and velvety with a “Southern flair” — makes it extra special.
Aunt Mary’s Cafe, 4640 Telegraph Ave. (at 45th Street), Oakland
What is a croffle? Jumping on the “what’s new in the world of chicken and waffles” bandwagon, I had to try this intriguing dish at the recently opened Café Etoile.
This combo changes everything: a buttermilk fried chicken thigh pierced by a knife, set atop a croissant morphed into a waffle, sprinkled with sugar, and accompanied by a spicy sauce that goes beyond mere maple syrup.
I asked about the seasoning on the chicken, which had a little kick to it: garlic powder, onion powder, and paprika. The little pepper garnish served as notice that this dish, besides being both sweet and savory, featured additional pizzazz. The croffle itself is a wonder — delicate flavor and texture that holds its own with the crispy chicken. Yes, it’s sweet (the sugar is “drizzled” on top), but it is a match made in heaven with that chicken.
Café Etoile, 1930 Martin Luther King Jr Way (near Hearst Avenue), Berkeley
We were fortunate to get some inside information as we sat outside at the Homemade Café, when chef/owner Collin Doran shared a couple of his secret ingredients and preparation methods as we tucked into our meal.
At Homemade, the chicken gets soaked overnight in a buttermilk brine with a little added vodka (the alcohol cooks off and “helps crisp up the chicken”) and egg, producing a juicy, crispy flavorful thigh. Homemade’s waffle is seasoned with spices and vanilla, giving it a defined flavor boost.
The combo is served with both gravy and syrup (“We don’t make people choose!”), and though I was dubious about the gravy, I’m glad I tried it. After dunking a bite of chicken into the creamy white gravy flavored with sage and studded with house-made sausage, my first thought was: this tastes like Thanksgiving! The pure maple syrup, so rich and buttery, topped it all off for a delicious version of the dish.
Homemade Café, 2454 Sacramento St. (at Dwight Way), Berkeley
Home of Chicken and Waffles
When the restaurant is called The Home of Chicken and Waffles, you would expect to see a variety of options, not just one. You will not be disappointed.
The menu lists ten different configurations, beginning with Angie’s Delight (“1 succulent breast, 1 delicious waffle and grits”), and going large with Renaldi’s Request (“2 pieces of chicken prepared Southern style or smothered in gravy and onions, and 2 delicious waffles”), or going off-script slightly with Paige’s Palette (“2 Southern-fried chicken wings, 1 egg, and one delicious waffle”).
Marva, our energetic server, would only tell me that the spices used on the chicken here are “just like the ones I use at home.” Her secrets are safe with me about what goes into the waffles and the syrup to make them a step above the usual. She answered my question about the takeout containers and utensils even for dining in, now that they are back to regular table service: real plates and flatware will return to the restaurant soon.
Butter, salt, and sugar are provided for your grits so you can have ‘em your favorite way. It doesn’t matter how they present the delicious combinations here — they’re just so good.
Home of Chicken and Waffles 444 Embarcadero West at Jack London Square, Oakland
If you’re not 100% sure about the whole notion of chicken and waffles, try a gateway sampler at Kitchen Story.
The popcorn chicken and waffle bits, which is listed under “small bites” on the menu, is just what it sounds like. Tiny bite-size pieces of seasoned fried chicken and crispy/soft waffle, sprinkled with popcorn and lightly mixed with maple syrup.
It works somehow, even the popcorn. This is my go-to dish at Kitchen Story, even though I don’t need any convincing that this pairing is a marvelous thing to behold.
When and if you’re ready to advance, there is also a grown-up version on the menu: Korean FC & Waffles, served with adobo maple syrup and fried cauliflower.
Kitchen Story 5422 College Ave. (near Manila Avenue), Oakland
Lois the Pie Queen
This is a “just the facts, ma’am” version of chicken and waffles. No bells or whistles, just a golden brown buttermilk waffle and a pile of hot and crispy fried chicken.
When I visited, near closing time on a Saturday, I got three large, juicy wings with my light and tasty waffle (on separate plates). A small amount of butter and little packs of Smucker’s Breakfast Syrup accompanied the dishes.
I asked about preparation and learned that the chicken (usually there are options for two pieces — breast or thigh — but wings were all they had left after a busy day, and I got a bonus of three) is seasoned with paprika, cayenne, salt, and pepper, and marinated in a “red sauce” for an hour. All that prep made for a tender, flavorful flight of wings.
Lois the Pie Queen, 851 60th St. (near Stanford Avenue), Oakland. Now open for take-out and dine-in
Featured image: The chicken and waffles at Aunt Mary’s. Credit: Risa Nye