Diners dig into chicken and waffles

Food pairing traced to 1940s Harlem grows in popularity

March 26, 2003|By Donna M. Owens | Donna M. Owens,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When it comes to famous food pairings, chicken and waffles may raise a few eyebrows, their savory and sweet merger a culinary mystery to the uninitiated.

Yet this quirky taste combination, popular for decades in some African-American and other ethnic communities, has gone mainstream.

Crispy fried chicken and light, golden waffles are turning up together on restaurant menus and specialty eateries nationwide, including in Baltimore.

"When we moved here from New York three years ago, we noticed there wasn't a chicken-and-waffle place," says Sham Hodges who, with wife Danielle, owns ShamDanai's on Eastern Avenue, billed as the city's first chicken-and-waffle house.

"In other parts of the country, chicken and waffles are big," says Hodges, who opened the 150-seat bakery/restaurant in Highlandtown last May. "We thought it would be a good idea that people here would appreciate."

These are not your Eggo waffles or your Kentucky fried chicken. The fluffy waffles, while maybe not gourmet, are made from scratch with fresh ingredients. The chicken is uniformly fried and intensely seasoned, usually with secret ingredients.

Although new to Baltimore, chicken and waffles as a food pair appears to date back more than a half century to New York City.

Legend has it that in 1940s Harlem, the now-shuttered restaurant and nightclub Wells began serving the meal to its hungry jazz performers and jet-setting after-hours crowd.

Folks liked the taste so much that chicken and waffles became an uptown classic - one that remains a staple at celebrity hotspot Amy Ruth's, the bustling neighborhood diner Pan Pan and numerous other establishments.

Chicken and waffles eventually made their way westward, becoming a hit in Los Angeles in the 1970s. Los Angeles is home to perhaps the world's most famous chicken-and-waffle empire, Roscoe's House of Chicken N Waffles.

Founded in 1976 by Herb Hudson, the business started with a single store in Hollywood and has grown into a multimillion-dollar enterprise with five locations in greater Los Angeles. A nationwide expansion and possible franchises are being discussed.

"Roscoe's has become an international institution," says Jai Rich, a company spokesman. "People come from all over the world to eat our food ... Europeans and Asians, as well as African-Americans."

Its menu is casual, straightforward and reasonably priced, offering specially seasoned Southern deep-fried chicken, (or smothered in light gravy if you prefer), accompanied by a homemade waffle.

The recipes are strictly top-secret. "We have worked desperately to make everything delicious," says Rich. "It's taken us 22 years to really come up with just the right recipe for our chicken and waffles. It's the perfect mingling of salty and sweet."

The success of sites like Roscoe's has spawned a new generation of waffle-and-chicken chains in the South. Gladys Knight and Ron Winans Chicken and Waffles opened in 1998 in Atlanta, and a second location is planned to open in the Atlanta suburbs next month.

The restaurant features dishes minted with names that many '70s soul music fans will recognize, like the Midnight Train - four chicken wings and a waffle.

"It's really taken off," says Reginald Washington, executive chef and partner.

Even though the chicken-and-waffle craze originated in New York and migrated to L.A., this type of fare still has a "Southern feel," says Washington. "It makes sense in a place like Georgia. It's family-oriented. Gladys [Knight] has been all over the world, but she loves this type of food. It means home."

The overall chicken-and-waffle concept lends itself to endless variations.

Over at ShamDanai's, which offers an extensive soul-food menu along with homemade baked goods, the restaurant pairs buttermilk waffles not only with fried and baked chicken, but spicy buffalo wings as well.

It also serves waffles with ribs, catfish and porterhouse steak. And on weekends, the cooks whip up banana-walnut and blueberry waffles.

The eclectic and tasty offerings seem to be a hit: On a recent Saturday afternoon, the restaurant drew a steady flow of customers. Many were novices eager to try what the Hodgeses term "the chicken-and-waffle experience."

"We've had a wonderful response," says Danielle Hodges. "I'm finding that Baltimore has a sense a pride that we, too, finally have our own chicken-and-waffle house."

Tasty Fried Chicken

Makes 6 to 8 servings

one 3- to 3 1/2 -pound fryer chicken, cut up

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons seasoned salt

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon onion powder

3/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon chili powder

1/4 cup vegetable shortening

Wash chicken, pat dry and put aside. In a brown paper or plastic bag, add flour and seasonings; shake well.

Place chicken in bag a piece at a time, and shake to coat. Shake off excess flour, put chicken on a plate and coat a second time. In a cast-iron skillet, heat shortening to make 1 inch of oil.

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