Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Reinventing Chicken and Waffles

Plus, a Shandong noodle shop opens in a downtown Berkeley parking booth.

By Luke Tsai
Wed, May 13, 2015 at 1:00 AM

The best part of eating brunch is the shameless, hedonistic mixing of savory and sweet. And, when done well, there's no brunch dish that captures that interplay quite as beautifully as fried chicken and waffles. Although the dish is rooted firmly in the African-American soul food tradition, I've recently seen variations on the theme popping up at all different kinds of restaurants in the East Bay. It's a trend I can get behind.

1. Perhaps the most memorable chicken and waffle dish I've had in recent months was at Tigerlily (1513 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley), a California-inflected "Indo-Asian" in North Berkeley at which chef Joel Lamica serves turmeric-infused, buttermilk-battered fried chicken and pairs it with waffles, maple syrup, and Indian tikka masala sauce. It's a brilliant, utterly addictive combination.

2. As it turns out, Indian flavors just make a lot of sense in the context of chicken and waffles — something about the way the spices make that sweet-and-savory contrast even more enjoyable. Never a place to shy away from the heat, Juhu Beach Club (5179 Telegraph Ave., Oakland) serves green-chili-infused fried chicken and spicy maple syrup in its version of the dish. But the main innovation is what chef Preeti Mistry calls the "doswaffle" — a cross between a Belgian waffle and a South Indian dosa (lentil crepe). Essentially, Mistry cooks traditional dosa batter in a waffle iron. What you wind up with is a surprisingly well-balanced dish. The dosa's fermented tang and the various spicy elements in the dish help to balance out its sweetness.  

3. At Shakewell (3407 Lakeshore Ave., Oakland), on the other hand, the dish has been reinterpreted through a Spanish lens — with delicate, fried-to-order churros acting as a stand-in for waffles. What I loved was the chicken: boneless thigh meat fried to a perfect juiciness, well salted, and redolent of smoked paprika. It nailed what is perhaps the biggest key to successful chicken and waffles: The savory elements need to be really savory; otherwise, the addition of syrup — in this case a vanilla-infused buttermilk syrup — will cause the dish to skew too sweet.

4. No roundup of East Bay chicken and waffles dishes would be complete without mentioning the queen of them all, Brown Sugar Kitchen's (2534 Mandela Pkwy., Oakland) relatively traditional soul food version, which has been winning hearts and minds since chef Tanya Holland opened the West Oakland breakfast and lunch spot in 2008. Holland's version is all about the waffle — crisp, greaseless, and so impossibly airy and light that the chicken almost becomes an afterthought.

On my list to try next: the seitan-based chicken and waffles at Souley Vegan (301 Broadway, Oakland), which recently relaunched Sunday brunch service, and Gussie's Southern Table and Bar (2021 Broadway, Oakland), the forthcoming soul food restaurant at which chicken and waffles will be the star attraction.

Noodles in a Parking Lot

Regular readers know I'm always on the lookout for regional Chinese food — for unusual dumpling varieties, obscure noodle dishes, or a better-than-average version of stinky tofu. My latest discovery: Face to Face, a Shandong noodle shop located in a converted parking attendant booth in downtown Berkeley, at 2109 Milvia Street (between Center and Addison streets) — the spot formerly occupied by Tsunami Dogs.

When I stumbled on Face to Face last Saturday, the friendly woman who appeared to be the owner told me the shop opened last Thursday. Given its location in a parking booth, it goes without saying that this is a barebones operation, with most of the cooking done offsite. For now, the menu consists of just four items: beef noodle soup, chow mein, potstickers, and a beef wrap.

Shandong is, of course, famous for its dough-based cuisine, so if someone from that province opens a noodle shop, there's no question I'll give it a shot. That said, I was wary of the "Asian beef wrap" ($4.50) — a variation on what most Northern Chinese restaurants would call a Shandong beef roll — when it came wrapped in an ordinary flour tortilla instead of a traditional Chinese pancake, and when the filling was garnished with raw onion and lettuce instead of scallions. But the slices of beef were pretty great — tender, replete with gelatinous bits of tendon, and coated with a pleasantly sweet hoisin sauce that soaked through the paper bag as I ate.

I was disappointed that the noodles in the beef noodle soup didn't appear to be made in-house, and the chunks of beef shank and tendon probably could have used another half hour of gentle simmering. Still, the broth had a soothing, wholesome quality — lighter on the star anise than the Taiwanese style, with a bit of a tomato tang. All in all, not bad for a $5.50 bowl.

Face to Face is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m.

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