Brunch in Charleston got real about eight years ago when a big dish called chicken and waffles showed up. Back in the day, I spent an alarming amount of time at A.C.'s Bar and Grill and was convinced that they had invented this strangely good combination. Fried chicken, fluffy waffles, sticky syrup — the ingredients were simple, but the combination was sublime. Of course, chicken and waffles pre-dates its appearance on A.C.'s brunch menu, as I eventually learned. Indeed, it's a classic soul food star from the 1930s with a debatable origin story that boils down to two cities vying for the chicken and waffle crown.
"There's definitely a point of contention where it started: Harlem or Atlanta," Leigh-Ann Gobel, A.C.'s manager, says. "And I'd like to think it was Atlanta because of Southern-fried chicken — and my Southern bias."
Roscoe's House of Chicken & Waffles in Los Angeles has also had a hand in spreading the chicken and waffle gospel, especially since the institution's signature dish has been famously noted by the likes of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air as well as Ludacris (in "Call Up the Homies") and Notorious B.I.G. (in "Going Back to Cali").
Early Bird Diner's chef/owner Dexter Haigler admits he first heard of Roscoe's chicken and waffles from Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown, while Fuel's chef/owner Justin Broome got wind of it in his travels out West. But Roscoe is originally from Harlem, so it looks like that city might deserve most of the credit.
Regardless of where it began, you need not travel all the way to Gladys Knight's Chicken and Waffles in Atlanta or to Harlem for the Sunday gospel brunch at Sylvia's Restaurant in order to get a good ol' heapin' helpin' of fried, syrupy goodness. The dish has gained fame at a handful of local establishments — and even Waffle House featured it as a special on New Year's Day — but when the trend hit Charleston, it did so in an unsuspecting, dimly lit dive bar on King Street eight years ago.
A.C.'s version of the dish starts with fried chicken tenders and a fluffy Belgian-style waffle. Sweet maple syrup melds it all together into a sweet and savory darling. The flavor combination is classic.
"I feel like the sweet and savory really go well together," says Dexter Haigler over at Early Bird Diner. "And it's a really indulgent experience when you can experience both of those flavors at the same time."
Early Bird's version of chicken and waffles has been a big seller but was added to the menu only about three or four months ago. "When we first started doing that dish we didn't necessarily intend on it being on the regular menu," Haigler says. "We ran it as a special a few times, and we were planning on making it a blue plate special one day of the week or something, but people demanded it. For a long time, we'd run it on Saturdays and Sundays, but we had enough times where people would come in wanting that, and if we didn't have it then they would just leave. So we put it on the menu."
Their version starts with boneless chicken breast and ground pecan flour. The chicken is battered, fried, and served over a big waffle with maple syrup and honey mustard made from local honey. "I'm not really the type of person to say we do the best chicken and waffles in the city because I feel like this is a great city for food," Haigler says. "I don't think we really need to be competitive because we're really not gonna run out of hungry people, but I'd bet it's a fact that we do the most. It seems like it would be the most. We go through about two or three hundred pounds of chicken a week."
Lowcountry Bistro has seen the same demand for the dish. "Chicken and waffles has been our signature dish from the start. It's been outselling sweet tea," says Chef de Cuisine Matt Paul, who co-created the menu with 82 Queen Executive Chef Steve Lusby when the little-sister bistro opened on the market last summer.
"I'm from the Amish country originally, and we do a different take on it up there, actually, where it's shredded chicken with gravy on top, like a breakfast item more than anything," says Paul, whose "favorite thing in the world" is chocolate-covered pretzels. "What I love about the combo is the sweet and salty; it seems like it's the perfect combination."
Although Lowcountry Bistro does not follow the Amish way, theirs is different from any other chicken and waffles in town. "It's a three-day step just to get that chicken on the plate, so it's a very big part of this restaurant," Paul says. The chicken is halved, brined for 24 hours, made into confit, and finally fried. They serve it on the bone with both dark and white meat and a scoop of pecan butter on top. The result is tender and delicious, but the kicker is the housemade waffle. "We do a sweet potato, bacon, and cornbread waffle so we fold in roasted sweet potatoes," Paul says. "And we use the ingredients that go well with sweet potatoes like nutmeg, chili powder, and we fold in bacon right at the very end with the cornbread mix, so you're really getting that Lowcountry feel to it."
Fuel has its own signature version of the dish. The super crispy chicken fingers are encrusted in Ritz crackers and placed atop two vanilla-flavored waffles, with Fuel's special syrup, a Tabasco-infused honey. It's not on the menu, so be sure to ask your server for some.
Over at the newly opened Rarebit, owner John Adamson says chicken and waffles was the first item he put on the menu. "I'm really big into balance in general about anything," Adamson says. "I felt like the chicken and waffles helped bring it down a notch, if that makes sense. It says that we're not taking ourselves too seriously. This is just a casual place where you can get an affordable meal, where everything's made in-house, and hopefully, it's exactly what you expect it to be."
Rarebit's take on the dish is neither fancy nor freakish, but it is an incredibly tasty, perfectly done piece of boneless, skinless, crispy fried chicken. Chef Mike Gaia uses a chili powder concoction that makes it sing and serves it atop a Belgian-style waffle that's made to order.
"I think what we're doing different is that we're not trying to be different," Adamson says. "That's a waffle, an excellent waffle, but it's a waffle. With an awesome chicken breast, and it's breaded and fried and really crispy, and spicy, and delicious."
And that's what chicken and waffles comes down to. It's a simple concoction, and with quality components, can add up to be something quite spectacular. Oh, who are we kidding. Even if you use a frozen chicken tender and a Bisquick waffle, this is a pretty tasty combination.