By LAURA Reiley
Times Food Critic
Which came first, the chicken or the waffle? There's a trend incubating in Tampa Bay's hipper restaurants, this kinda-breakfast-kinda-dinner novelty hatching on menus all over. Haven't the foggiest what I'm talking about?
Imagine fried chicken catnapping on a fluffy mattress of Belgian waffle, the unlikely bedfellows going so far as to implicate maple syrup in the proceedings. Blech, you say? Who do we have to blame for this?
Technically, it's Thomas Jefferson. The Declaration of Independence, the copy machine and, as it turns out, he brought the first waffle iron to his young nation's soil.
Because the chicken addition is shrouded in controversy, I turned to an expert.
Frederick Douglass Opie is an associate professor at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and author of Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America. He is a foremost chicken and waffle scholar, claiming that the dynamic duo took off at Wells Supper Club in Harlem in the 1930s. Jazz musicians, their gigs starting at 10 p.m. and ending at 3 a.m., weren't quite sure what they wanted to eat.
"I'm hungry. I want some breakfast food. No wait, dinner food," Opie said they said. The chicken and waffle thing went viral fast, performers on the Chitlin' Circuit dragging that hankering up and down the eastern seaboard. Opie complicates things when he starts talking about the Dutch.
"Waffles were really introduced by the Dutch to the U.S., and the two places the Dutch had their greatest influence were New York, where they first settled, and then in Pennsylvania. I talked to a white Pennsylvania woman who remembers chicken and waffles when she grew up. So it's not distinctly an African-American thing; nor is it distinctly Southern. It's a practicality food, cheap to produce."
Produce it they did. Roscoe's in Los Angeles is usually credited as the C&W master architect, but that's mainly because famous people from Snoop Dogg to Redd Foxx have sung its praises. Gladys Knight has started her own chicken and waffle empire in Georgia, her efforts nabbing her a top-10-celebrity-restaurants nod from TripAdvisor just last week.
And now Tampa Bay has broken out with a serious case of chicken and waffle pox. Heather Stalker, "director of fun" at Datz in Tampa, thinks the dish's recent popularity could be the tail wagging the dog. Cooking magazines and the Food Network have devoted a lot of time to the dish and its origins, perhaps planting the seed in the minds of impressionable chefs.
The Datz rendition (the restaurant recently dropped the Deli from its name; 2616 S MacDill Ave., Tampa; (813) 831-7000; $15) is gargantuan, served at dinner nightly as part of its new vintage American classics menu. A monster breast and leg are moist and expertly fried, with a light, flaky batter, and set atop a crisp-edged blue corn waffle with a hint of rosemary. Then it gets a maple butter sauce that has been kicked up with Thai sweet chili sauce. It's sweet, savory and spicy, with the classic, herbal note of rosemary lending sophistication. When I ordered it, a gentleman at a neighboring table called, "Good luck" as he departed wincingly, having consumed a whole order.
Z Grille's Saturday brunch (104 Second St. S, St. Petersburg; (727) 822-9600; chicken and waffles $10) is about as entertaining as it is tasty, with Zack Gross' signature love-me-or-hate-me machismo. Z Grille's spin on chicken and waffles is actually fairly refined, but I got to it after a trio of barbecue bacon deviled eggs ($5) (you can't get away from bacon in this joint). A classic Belgian waffle is paired with a juicy, crispy fried boneless chicken breast, a bacon maple syrup, scattering of scallion curls and a ball of pink peppercorn compound butter. Overall, the dish had heat and verve, but I'd say the peppercorn butter was just a hair harsh.
Over at Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe (5119 N Nebraska Ave., Tampa; (813) 234-1000; chicken and waffles $11), you can end with chocolate-covered bacon if you're so inclined, but they take their chicken and waffles a little more savory. Chef Ernie Locke is a Roscoe's fan back from his days of touring with the alt blues-punk band Tenderloin. His version is two pieces of fried chicken, a thigh and a leg, the batter crisp and just slightly spicy, atop a fluffy and tender Belgian waffle and accompanied by a bourbon maple gravy. Just faintly mapley, it's so delicious you may find yourself spooning it like soup. The dish also comes with a choice of side: While the sweet potato fries are the best offering, this is too much of a fried thing; opt for the collards, their liquor heavily perfumed with, you guessed it, bacon.
And then there's the brand-new Holy Hog Barbecue (3501 N Armenia Ave., Tampa; (813) 879-4647), opened April 4 by Danny Hernandez at the site of his former Pipo's. As he explains it, his Cuban family has always had an infatuation with pig, so he recently decided to take the plunge and do all Southern barbecue, heavy on things porcine.
It's a funky place, with lots of taxidermied heads and miscellaneous antique tools (old-timey handsaws next to mounted deer noggins, very cause and effect). People order at the counter and eat at picnic tables. Hernandez offers chicken and waffles as a special the second Friday of the month, taking it straight Southern. That means two pieces of battered chicken sitting atop a round Belgian waffle, the whole thing dusted with powdered sugar and served with maple syrup.
This chicken and waffle thing may still fill you with fear and/or loathing. But a trend it is. Why did the waffle cross the road? Because it was stuck to the chicken.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Read her dining blog at tampabay.com/blogs/ dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or assessment.