I’m not sure why exactly, but recently, I started looking into the chicken and waffles craze that’s spreading through Kansas City’s restaurant scene.
I’ve never been much of a fan of sweet and savory, but I’ve loved potato chips and ice cream since I was a kid. And Champagne and popcorn, or more specifically, any bubbly and the duck fat kettle corn at Ca Va, hangs me over the moon. So, I get sweet and salty, and I think that’s more to the point when it comes to chicken and waffles.
Most people trace the origins of chicken and waffles to Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, a Long Beach, California-based soul food restaurant chain founded by Herb Hudson, a Harlem native, in 1975.
Hudson’s Motown connections made his restaurant popular with the record industry crowd, and that popularity quickly spread to other celebrities. Gladys Knight, Natalie Cole and Redd Foxx were among Roscoe’s legions of fans. Even President Barack Obama made a stop at Roscoe’s in 2011.
There’s no doubt Roscoe’s popularized the pairing and became famous for it, but to get to the roots of chicken and waffles, you’ve got to go back centuries.
For insight, I turned to author Tori Avey who penned a comprehensive article exploring the history of this combo. As Avery points out, fried chicken shows up in its earliest form as a fricassee — fried chicken pieces braised in sauce during the medieval period.
Fried chicken became popular in this country in the 19th century, largely in Southern kitchens run by African-American slaves. But its nationwide popularity can be largely credited to the advent of the automobile, which led to roadside diners, which begat Harlan Sanders, and eventually, Kentucky Fried Chicken.
As for waffles, Avery states they first appeared during the Middle Ages when bakeries began making communion wafers to compete with monasteries. Waffles later became a popular street food in Europe before being brought to the U.S. by the Pilgrims after a short stopover in Holland.
Chicken and waffles first crossed paths in Pennsylvania Dutch country. Avery says home cooks made waffles and topped them with pulled chicken and gravy.
The more modern expression can likely be traced to Wells Supper Club in Harlem, N.Y. Interestingly, Nat King Cole was a patron of Wells, perhaps unknowingly laying the foundation for his daughter to become a chicken and waffles advocate at Roscoe’s some 40 years later!
So where can you get this magical combination, and variations on it, in Kansas City? Well, far too many places to mention. I personally tried three versions, one traditional and two a little less.
I was told Stroud’s was now serving chicken and waffles, but only for breakfast/lunch, and only on Saturdays and Sundays. So my wife and I made a trip to the Independence Stroud’s where I dutifully ordered the chicken and waffles. It was good, very good, featuring a standard thick Belgian waffle, classic maple syrup and two crispy fried chicken thighs.
I was prepared not to like the combo, at least not very much. But to my surprise, it was really tasty and I finished nearly the whole plate, leaving sated, pleased and a bit surprised.
Less than a week earlier, I had my first Kansas City chicken and waffles experience at Lee’s Summit’s Third Street Social. I noticed the dish on the appetizer menu and vowed I’d give it a shot.
The chicken featured a thicker coating than Stroud’s, and Third Street used white meat rather than dark. Another difference was the waffles, two cheddar bacon waffles in lieu of the buttermilk variety.
The syrup also brought a twist by adding rosemary to the maple flavor. The chicken was moist, the waffles tasty and the syrup had just the right hint of rosemary. I’d call Third Street Social’s chicken and waffles a success.
I saved my last chicken and waffles experience for Crown Point Tavern, a new eatery north of the river near the old Antioch Mall.
Crown Point’s version features chicken tenders, a red velvet waffle with cream cheese butter, and maple syrup. This had to be the sweetest of the three variations, right? RIGHT! My daughter loves red velvet anything and she adores waffles, so I know where we’re heading when she gets back into town.
The waffle had a lovely sweet red velvet flavor, and the cream cheese butter was the perfect accompaniment. Honestly, I preferred the waffle without the syrup as that made the dish too sweet for me. The chicken tenders were, well, tender. The dish comes with three of them and a big waffle, so the dish is plenty filling.
One of the owners told me they were on their fourth waffle iron in a search for the right result. I think they’ve got a winner! Bravo, Crown Point Tavern, always glad to have another nonchain dining choice North of the River.
I also asked around. Here are some other places that were recommended to me for their version of chicken and waffles: Niece’s, McCoy’s, Char Bar, Longfellow Grill, Gram and Dun, The Oliver, The Corner Restaurant, Beer Kitchen and R.C.’s. Happy hunting everyone!
Dave Eckert is a partner with Flavor Trade, a Kansas City-based gourmet food incubator and co-packer. Before that, Eckert was the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS and AWE for 12 seasons.