Southern Fried and Syrup Soaked
Hunting down the best chicken and waffles in Burque
By Eric Castillo
Have you ever noticed that many of Southern cuisine’s shining stars are power combos of two food items? Shrimp and grits. Biscuits and gravy. And one of my personal favorites: chicken and waffles.
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
In my experience, there are two types of people: those who like chicken and waffles and those who have yet to try it. Many of those in the latter group have trouble with the idea of sweet and savory foods sharing the same plate or have an aversion to mixing breakfast food with dinner fare. I can understand. It’s not a combination I would think up on my own.
In my experience, there are two types of people: those who like chicken and waffles and those who have yet to try it.
So, you might wonder, who was the first person to look at a bucket of fried chicken and a frozen pack of waffles and think putting the two on the same plate would make any sense?
Let’s clear up some of the history and get our facts straight. For one thing, Colonel Sanders didn’t open his first franchise until 1952. Eggo wouldn’t start invading the frozen food aisle until the following year. But chicken and waffles can trace its roots much further back to the American South prior to the Civil War.
The story goes that in 1789, Thomas Jefferson returned from a five-year trip to France with a waffle iron. Trendsetter that he was, people started throwing parties known as “waffle frolics” and thus gave the waffle newfound popularity. And with chicken considered just as much a breakfast item as bacon or sausage, waffles soon found themselves sharing the plate with fried poultry.
So is the chicken/waffle combo a breakfast food? Is it appropriate for dinnertime? The beauty of chicken and waffles is that there’s no wrong time of day or night to eat them. In fact, the dish experienced a resurgence in popularity in Harlem during the 1930s in large part because it worked well as a late-night meal. Jazz musicians from the Harlem Renaissance found themselves convening after late shows at restaurants and facing the classic 2am quandary of choosing between dinner and breakfast. Restaurants like Wells Supper Club capitalized on the situation by offering a plate of fried chicken and waffles, both solving the musician’s dilemma and helping the restaurant use up chicken left from dinner service.
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
Here we are, several decades later and far from Harlem, but you can still get your chicken and waffles fix in the Duke City.
Perhaps the most well-known purveyor of chicken and waffles in town is Nexus Brewery (4730 Pan American Fwy), where their Southern-inspired menu has become as popular as their beer selection. As in many Albuquerque eateries, Nexus’ Southern food has taken on some New Mexican flair. I briefly contemplated how a side of calabacitas might go with an order of red beans and rice but I stuck to my plan to try their famed fried chicken and waffles.
I ordered the two-piece option ($10), which paired a Belgian waffle with a sizable thigh and drumstick. The star of the plate was definitely the chicken, which was fresh from the fryer and flavorful. The menu offers a fair warning that you may need to wait up to 20 minutes for the chicken to fry, but it’s more than worth it. Besides, you’re in a brewery. Enjoy a beer while you pass the time. Cooking the chicken fresh-to-order ensures that the skin is at its peak of crispy perfection—and what’s better than picking off that first bite of fried chicken skin and indulging in a little culinary sin? It only gets better when you start pairing bites of spicy, salty chicken with syrup-soaked waffle.
In my search to find other restaurants with chicken and waffles on the menu, I was surprised to find one a little closer to the upscale side than you might expect. Proving that chicken and waffles has a place among linen napkin establishments, Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro (3009 Central NE) in Nob Hill includes it on their weekend brunch menu. Available Saturdays and Sundays, Zinc plates three pieces of fried chicken atop a Belgian waffle for $12. In this dish, the contrast between salty, crispy chicken and sweet, fluffy waffle is starkly apparent. Although the waffle might border on the saccharine side and the chicken near its sodium limit, taking the two together in one mouthful is a harmonious bite. You can go easy on the syrup, though. The waffle is plenty sweet and the chicken juicy already.
There is one restaurant in Albuquerque that is willing to literally stake their name on their chicken and waffles. Frank’s Famous Chicken & Waffles (513 San Mateo NE) sure has some gall to declare their fame right on the front of their bright yellow building on San Mateo. But owner Frank Willis is willing to bet his chicken and waffles are worthy of stardom. After ordering and devouring the six-piece Famous Plate ($10), I have to concede they’re definitely doing something right.
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
The biggest leg up on the competition they have is their choice of waffle. You won’t find a Belgian waffle at Frank’s. Instead, the plate comes with a stack of two American waffles with a generous portion of whipped cinnamon butter on top. Nearly as big as your face, these waffles are thinner than the Belgian variety, which I find works better for pairing with bites of chicken.
The choice of chicken is different as well. Rather than breasts and thighs, Frank’s serves up fried chicken wings. I prefer a couple of meaty drumsticks, but the wings pack some good flavor, and you still get that crispy skin goodness in nearly every bite.
And really, isn’t that what anyone is looking for in chicken and waffles? It’s all about finding that perfect combo of a bit of buttered waffle, a sliver of fried chicken skin and meat, and a kiss of syrup. I stop short of adding a dash of hot sauce like some chicken and waffle aficionados suggest, but if you’re up for it, knock yourself out. Just like there’s no wrong time of day to eat them, there’s no wrong way to enjoy chicken and waffles.
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