A little piece of Oakland hipsterism died the day Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles on Grand Avenue closed. Though the restaurant was only open for a couple of years, you could hear whimpers in the voices of the lanky-haired, thrift-store-T-shirt set as they passed on the news. Well, bring out the belly dancers and fire-breathers: Three years later, Roscoe's Chicken'n and Waffles is back!
The new House of Chicken'n Waffles in Jack London Square was planning to be a Roscoe's, just like the last one. Co-owner Derreck Johnson's father, Travis, managed the original Roscoe's in Hollywood in the 1970s, and the younger Johnson had tried to set up the first Oakland franchise. But the deal fell through.
Johnson says there are no hard feelings, but an anonymous source passed me a copy of the trademark-infringement injunction filed against the Oakland store just as it was reopening. The upshot was that House of Chicken'n Waffles had to redo its sign and print up new menus. About the same time, I started getting e-mails from semiobsessive fans who found that chicken and waffles under any other name still tasted as sweet.
They're right. The new House of Chicken'n Waffles isn't just cleaner, tastier, and friendlier than the old one. It's got flair. Johnson and Michelle Wilson, the cooking side of the partnership (and Johnson's cousin), took over an old coffee shop on the corner of Broadway and Embarcadero and did it up 1950s redux, a wink and the nod to the heyday of the diner, but not one of those family-friendly malt-shop museums. The two flooded the room with color: pale yellow and lavender walls, sparkly blue upholstering, and shiny starburst lights, each bulb a different color. The prime spot to sit at isn't at one of the tables at the back but in the deep, scalloped booths out front, where you can peer out the window or ogle the sweet potato pie at the counter.
Though the restaurateurs shook out the Crayola box to paint the space, they outfitted the waiters in semiformal black and white. They also absorbed the lesson that you have to earn regular customers. The waitstaff is as friendly and responsive as the folks who deliver foie gras and flourless chocolate cakes. One server even offered us, unsolicited, ramekin-sized samples of a few sides we hadn't ordered (based on later conversations with the owner, I'm fairly certain they didn't know who I was).
The contents of the de-Roscoeized menu are strikingly similar to the down-South original: not broad, but deep. Like Roscoe's, HCNW's menu lists a befuddling number of combinations, each named for someone in the family. Do you want a quarter chicken with one waffle or two? A couple of wings with some greens and cornbread? Some cornbread with greens and black-eyed peas? Some black-eyed peas with a chicken breast? The cooks have named almost every possible configuration of eggs, chicken, grits, greens, beans, biscuits, and waffles, and if they skipped the combo you're pining for, there's always à la carte.
Wilson takes a reductionist approach to her fried chicken, lightly seasoning it and then dusting it equally lightly in flour before it hits the oil. Her crust comes out thin and flaky, not in quarter-inch thick wrinkles of batter. And generally, the insides are glistening and tender. One of the thighs we received -- out of about five or so -- came out tough, but in the rest, the meat peeled off the bone as easily as the wrapper off a candy bar. I've stopped getting white meat when I order fried chicken, since it's usually so dry that it sucks the saliva off your tongue. That didn't happen at HCNW: The breasts were as good as the thighs.
You can order the chicken "Southern-style" or "smothered." Southern-style means straight-up fried chicken, but if you think you'll save calories by ordering the smothered, you're dead wrong -- it's fried chicken covered in gravy. Which is, by the way, the real thing, made with meaty drippings -- none of that electric-yellow powdered sludge.
Waffles, the other half of the equation, come out extra golden, as if they'd used more egg yolks than your average waffle. But they didn't taste eggy: just a little sweet and soft, the tips of the peaks brown and crisped. Round scoops of whipped butter melt all over the waffle, pooling in the indentations.
We tried the chicken and the waffles together in the Renaldi's Request (quarter chicken, two waffles), the minimalist Angie's Delight (one breast, one waffle), and in the grand guignol Lord B.J.'s (smothered half-chicken with two waffles). I still don't get the sweet-meat combination -- I preferred the waffles with the smothered-chicken gravy -- but its roots go deep (see Kitchen Sink). And yes, the experts say, you're supposed to eat the chicken with the syrup. Fried-chicken historian John T. Edge even adds hot sauce for a Chinese-style "sweet and sour and hot thing."
Just because no one else in my party would, I ordered the giblets. Giblets, in case you didn't know, are the heart, gizzard, and liver of a chicken. Like oxtail and chitterlings, they're part of African-American culinary history, dating back to the days when slaves made do with scraps, turning one man's trash into everyone's treasure.
HCNW serves them in chicken-liver omelets or with grits, eggs, and biscuits. I ordered the latter, and got a good dozen niblets, battered and fried and then smothered with that gravy. The chunky bits of darkish meat tasted great, like thigh meat squared, but were as chewy as a tennis ball. I made it through a half-dozen before my jaw tired, then finished off the perfectly competent scrambled eggs, dredging them in the rest of the gravy. The flat, wide biscuit served alongside wasn't as flaky as it could have been, but the grits passed muster with a real live Texan.
Another friend ordered the "Princess Jordan," a breast with mac and cheese, greens, and cornbread. "This is Jordan," said our server -- who later turned out to be Johnson -- nodding to the shy, jiggly schoolgirl at his side. She refused to confirm or deny whether she was, in actuality, a princess, but seemed to be trailing her dad in preparation for taking over the world.
The Princess Jordan confirmed another tip about HCNW: Get you some sides. Like the candied yams, which melt as easily as broiled marshmallows into a caramelly syrup that won't rattle your teeth. Or the potato salad. Half mashed, half chunked, it's light on the mayonnaise and snappy with yellow mustard and green onions. You can see that HCNW's mac and cheese isn't a gloopy, flavorless mess, because curds of baked cheddar cheese and white sauce cling to each noodle. The red beans are cooked with enough ham hock to deliver deep flavor, and on Thursdays and Fridays, HCNW serves black-eyed peas, stewed with enough aromatics to mute the beans' normal undertaste of topsoil. My favorite? The greens, a mix of collards and mustards, sliced into wide, silky strips and spiked with a little vinegar to cut the bitterness.
Finish with sweet potato pie, sock-it-to-me cake (bundt cake with a swirl of brown sugar, dried fruit, and pecans), or a mile-high yellow cake filled with pineapples and coated in coconut shag. There's no beer or wine, but you can have iced tea, fresh-squeezed lemonade, or lemon iced tea, which improbably blends the two. Like the chicken and waffles, I'm not sure whether the combination really works. But I'll be back for more.