It's an unlikely pairing, chicken and waffles. It's also a combination that beckons to anyone fond of the coupling of sweet and salty foods. This delectable union of soft and crunchy, maple and meaty is a lively duo that dates back to 17th-century Pennsylvania Dutch country. The original, and arguably most authentic, recipe involves shredded or chopped chicken in a brown gravy, poured over waffles. According to foodie folklore, in the 1930s, enterprising chefs at the Wells Supper Club in New York's Harlem district separated the chicken from its waffle to please much of their late-night clientele, mostly jazz musicians stopping by after a gig. Arriving well past dinnertime but too early for breakfast, these regulars could have both meals at once with a plate full of crisp fried chicken and sweet waffles.
In 1976, Harlem native Herb Hudson opened the now-legendary Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles in Los Angeles. As with the Wells Supper Club, many of Hudson's clients were local musicians, among them singer Gladys Knight, who went on to open her own chain of Gladys and Ron's Chicken and Waffles joints in partnership with gospel singer Ron Winan. In recent years, this amalgam of Southern food and breakfast eats has gone trendy, turning up in various permutations on menus from Cincinnati to Sunnyslope.
I'm more surprised by the places that don't offer this newish fave — chains like Waffle House or Popeye's and ma-and-pa soul food joints like Mrs. White's Golden Rule Café, for example — than I am interested in finding chicken crammed into a waffle cone (at Jorge's) or reimagined with kimchi and chili (at the Clever Koi).
Whether you're sticking to the original recipe or tarting it up with culinary junk, the proper way to eat chicken and waffles is up for grabs. Some start with the chicken, leaving the waffle for an end-of-meal dessert. Others eat the two together, often covered in either syrup or hot sauce. At Lo-Lo's, I spotted one diner eating his chicken and waffles with honey, while the guy at the next table smothered his plate in ketchup. Arcadia-adjacent breakfast shop Over Easy recommends, in a note printed right on their menu, a combination of both hot sauce and real maple syrup. Over Easy's chicken-fried chicken and waffle was pretty straightforward, the boneless chicken breast moist on the inside, crisp, and neatly breaded. The waffle was fine, fluffy and light, with a nice crunch and a cakey inside, but was neither special nor especially disappointing when eaten in combination with the chicken and syrup. Over Easy's serving suggestion proved to be the trick to really enjoying this dish: Eaten with both the fiery hot sauce and maple syrup, it became a supple sweet and sour chicken entrée.
Another breakfast joint, this one a chain, offered a surprisingly special chicken and waffle combo. U.S. Egg's light, nicely browned classic Belgian waffle provided a sturdy bed for a moist, boneless white meat chicken finger in a snappy, slightly salty, finer-crumbed breading. (Note to self: Stop expecting so little of cooks in chain restaurants.) A side of creamy, piquant sausage gravy gave the whole shebang the flavor of a really decadent biscuits and gravy combo, a notion furthered by the side of eggs this came served with.
If I set the bar low for breakfast places dabbling in the chicken-and-waffle game, I may have also set it too high for those places charged with setting the entrée's standard. Lo-Lo's Chicken and Waffles, a franchise with four locations in the Valley, offers multiple spins on the waffle-poultry concept, and not all are hands-down winners. The DD offers perfectly cooked bone-in chicken in both dark and light meats, crispy in a lighter breading than traditional fried chicken, tender and well-seasoned. Lo-Lo's waffle batter is lightly spiced with cinnamon, which provides a distinctive but not entirely pleasant flavor in combination with each of the dish's other elements. The light yet dense plate-size round is fine on its own, and its cinnamon-y tones are nice in combination with the crunchy chicken. But that same flavor is a drag when joined by Lo-Lo's peppery hot sauce. A bit of honey proved to be a better choice.
The Baby Ray inches closer to a more traditional presentation, smothering its chicken in brown gravy topped by crisp strips of onion and served, as with all of Lo-Lo's entrées, separately from the waffle. The crisp breading held up well to the chicken-flavored gravy, which was smooth and salty and, on the day I ordered it, on the cold side. The combination of cinnamon waffle and brown gravy was something other than palate-pleasing; the dish's better balance of savory and sweet flavors isn't served by adding aromatic spices like cinnamon.
Jorge's Chicken and Waffles, another pacesetter, is home to what may be the friendliest waitstaff in town. Its chicken waffle cone is perhaps best for diners with only a passing interest in chicken and waffles. A waffle cone filled with crispy jalapeño slaw and slices of breaded-and-fried chicken is an interesting curiosity, its sweetness coming not from maple syrup but from its sugary wrapping. Considering its many elements — chopped cabbage, hot peppers, creamy dressing, moist hunks of white meat — it lacks complexity in both flavor and texture.
Jorge's straight-ahead signature dish, ordered with either two pieces on the bone or an eight-ounce boneless breast, is a better bet. Chicken was seasoned with eight spices, most notably cayenne, and served with delectably spicy sausage gravy. Its breading was neither too soft nor too crunchy and stood up to dunkings in both the gravy and a ramekin of syrup. Forked up with a hunk of moist, sweet, cakey waffle, the white meat chicken was sublime. Unfortunately, my two pieces of dark meat arrived only half-cooked.
The Clever Koi's chicken, on the other hand, was overcooked. Its overambitious chicken and waffles, included for some reason on the steamed buns menu, is a well-intentioned disaster: A pair of kimchi waffles sticky with chili maple syrup frame a pair of leathery hunks of dark meat dressed with bits of scallion. I was so anxious to rid myself of this dish's several excessive flavors, I ordered a plateful of calamari fries, which I'd recommend trying (they were delicious) if this were not an article about chicken and waffles.
Tuck Shop offered the only other savory waffle I found in my chicken-and-waffles search, and it was sublime. Tall and fluffy, this Belgian-style number had a slightly grainy texture and a light taste of cheddar cheese, more like a slab of exquisite soufflé in the shape of a waffle. It's served with three pieces of chicken, one of them a breast and all on the bone, each of them clad in a sturdy, lightly crunchy, citrusy coating that's barely breading and more like a crispy skin with a gorgeous, slightly briny taste. No syrup, butter, or hot sauce is served with this, and none were needed for what is certainly our town's best chicken and waffle combo.
Jorge's Chicken and Waffles
1212 E. Apache Blvd., Tempe
4730 E. Indian School Road, Phoenix
Lo Lo's Chicken and Waffles
four Valley locations
2245 N. 12th St., Phoenix
The Clever Koi
4236 N. Central Ave., Phoenix
six Valley locations