Years ago, while visiting a friend in California, Bob McCarthy had his first plate of chicken and waffles: crispy, deep-fried chicken pieces served atop a fluffy, plate-size waffle, with slabs of butter and maple syrup.
The simple meal, said the Salt Lake City restaurant and bar owner, offered so many contrasting elements. It was savory and sweet, crunchy yet soft, breakfast with a touch of dinner.
McCarthy thought back to that memorable breakfast when it came time to plan the menu at The Garage on Beck, his roadhouse bar and grill at 1199 N. Beck St. "I just knew in a place like this, it would really sell," he said. "People think it's funky and after you have it, it's just amazing."
Thanks to The Garage and several other Salt Lake restaurants, Utahns are getting the chance to experience this Southern staple, a food trend that peaked on the East and West coasts a few years ago.
The Pig and a Jelly Jar, which opened about six months ago at 401 E. 900 South, has a version on its menu. So does PapaO's, a new Southern food restaurant at 11479 S. St. in Draper. And the Bayleaf Bar and Grub, 159 S. Main St., Salt Lake City, has had chicken and waffles on its menu since it opened in 2009.
At The Garage, chef Liz Guerro and her staff serve about 100 orders each week. The dish costs $9 and comes with three pieces of chicken a leg, thigh and breast. It's a favorite for weekend brunch, but customers also order it for lunch or a late-night snack. The chicken pieces are brined in a mixture of salt, sugar and water, "which hydrates the meat" and keeps it moist, Guerro said. Then they are dredged in a mixture of flour, cracker meal, and "secret spices" before frying.
"The chicken is perfectly cooked, and with a little bit of syrup, it's pretty tasty," says Garage customer Kris Davey.
That explains why people "have been wolfing down chicken and waffles for decades, maybe even a couple of centuries," writes Southern food historian John T. Edge, who devoted an entire chapter to this poultry-meets-breakfast combination in his book Fried Chicken: An American Story.
In the book, Edge points to Edna Lewis, the queen of African-American cooking, who wrote in her first cookbook that fried chicken was a popular breakfast dish for her family when she was a child.
Before that, The United States Regional Cookbook, published in 1939, included a recipe for "Kentucky Fried Chicken," Edge said. The recipe, in the Southern food chapter, instructed cooks to steam chicken pieces until tender, batter-fry them and then serve with griddle cakes, grits and surprise! waffles.
Even further back, the dish has been linked to Thomas Jefferson, who first brought the waffle iron from France. The appliance was enthusiastically adopted by African-American slaves, who combined waffles with chicken and gravy for a filling Sunday meal.
The Wells Supper Club, a popular Harlem eatery that opened in 1938, is believed to be the first restaurant to serve the dish. According to food historians, at the height of the jazz renaissance, the restaurant began to stay open late to accommodate band members and partygoers who were hungry after the shows. The late night (or early morning) menu featured the restaurant's savory fried chicken paired with a sweet waffle. The dish quickly became a hit and other restaurants began serving it as well.
In 1996, singer Gladys Knight, inspired by her own experiences at the Wells Supper Club, opened Gladys and Ron's Chicken & Waffles in Atlanta with fellow vocalist Ron Winans.
Utahns who have traveled to California have likely heard of Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles, which was launched in Long Beach in 1975 by Herb Hudson, a Harlem native. Today, Roscoe's has six Southern California locations.
McCarthy, from The Garage, ate that first plate of chicken and waffles at a Roscoe's. So did Michael Law, co-owner of Saturday's Waffle, a Salt Lake food truck that parks at the Olympus Hills Shopping Center every Saturday. Chicken and waffles aren't on the regular menu, Law said, but the food vendor makes the dish for special events.
Beyond taste, Law says he believes comfort and familiarity are part of the dish's appeal. "People understand waffles and they understand fried chicken, and they usually like both," he said.
Putting them together might initially sound strange, "but most people are willing to go out on a limb and try it because it's different and not that much of a food risk," Law said.
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Chicken and waffle plates
Bayleaf Bar and Grub • 159 S. Main St., Salt Lake City; 801-359-8490. Open Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; and continuously on the weekends from 11 a.m. on Friday to 1 a.m. Sunday. Closed Monday. Chicken and waffle plate includes one fried chicken breast served on top of a buttermilk waffle. Comes with butter and syrup for $8.99. Double chicken available for $3.99.
The Garage on Beck • 1199 N. Beck St., Salt Lake City; 801-521-3904. Open daily 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. The chicken and waffle plate contains three pieces a leg, thigh and breast of fried chicken placed along side a house-made waffle, served with warm maple syrup. Available anytime for $9.
PapaO's • 11483 S. State, Draper; 801-619-3503. Open Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday noon to 6 p.m. Chicken and waffle plate includes two pieces of chicken and two side for $8.99.
Pig and a Jelly Jar • 401 E. 900 South, Salt Lake City; 385-202-7366. Open Monday-Sunday 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and for Sunday supper from 5 to 8:30 p.m. A crunchy fried boneless breast of chicken comes atop a plate-sized house-made waffle. Comes with butter and maple syrup for $10.
Brined fried chicken
The benefit of brine is that the batter keeps the seasoning from penetrating the meat, but the brine works its way in.
4 cups cold water
1/2 cup of sugar
1/4 cup salt
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
2 chickens, 3 pounds each, cut into 8 pieces each
Brine (recipe above)
3 cups buttermilk
2 tablespoons plus 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
3 cups of flour
1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
3 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
8 cups oil for frying
For the brine, pour cold water into a pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Remove from heat and add sugar, salt, bay leaf, peppercorns, and coriander seeds. Cool completely.
Put the chicken in a glass baking dish and pour the brine over the chicken. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 12-24 hours.
Remove the chicken from the brine, remove any peppercorns stuck to the skin, and let the chicken dry slightly on a wire rack while preparing the buttermilk and flour.
In a large bowl, stir together the buttermilk with 1 tablespoon of the salt. In another large bowl, stir together the flour with the remaining salt and spices.
Dredge the chicken 4 pieces at a time in the flour. Transfer to the buttermilk, gently shaking the bowl to coat the chicken. Transfer the chicken back to the flour, being careful not to scrape off the batter. Gently shake the bowl to coat the chicken with flour, then transfer the pieces to a wire rack, again being careful not to scrape off the batter. Repeat with the remaining pieces of chicken and let dry on the wire rack for 30 minutes.
Pour oil into a 5-quart pot and heat to 350 degrees. Cook the white and dark meat separately. Place four pieces of chicken into the oil, it will cool to about 300 degrees after adding the chicken; this is the correct heat for cooking the chicken. (See note below). Cook for 5 minutes, then turn the chicken over and cook for an additional 10 minutes for white meat and 12 minutes for dark meat. If the chicken gets too dark, lower the heat. Drain on a wire rack and repeat with remaining chicken. Serve hot or cold.
Note: Keep a close eye on the thermometer when frying; try to maintain a temperature of 300 degrees, which will cook the chicken through without burning the exterior.
Servings • 8
Source: "Inspired by Ingredients" by Bill Telepan and Andrew Friedman
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour*
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups buttermilk
1â3 cup melted butter or oil
2 eggs, beaten
Preheat waffle iron. Preheat oven to 200 degrees
In a bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, soda and salt. In another bowl, mix buttermilk, melted butter and eggs. Whisk together both mixtures an beat until smooth.
When the waffle iron is hot enough for a bit of oil to sizzle, ladle or pour the batter directly into the center of the lower half until it spread to within an inch of the edges. Close and cook according to manufacturers directions. Do no lift cover during baking. Steam will escape from the sides of the waffle iron, so take care not to get burned. When the steam subsides, the waffle is nearly ready.
When waffle is done, lift the cover. Loosen waffle with a fork and remove. Serve immediately or place on a sheet of aluminum foil or an oven proof plate or pan, covering loosely with foil. Keep warm in oven. Meanwhile, close waffle iron to reheat. When ready, pour in batter and repeat cooking process. Thin the batter as needed with more buttermilk.
*Self-rising flour may be used as a substitute in equal measure for the flour. Omit baking powder, baking soda and salt.
Servings • 8 to 10
Source: Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking, by Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart