The Cured Ham has been hearing about Chicken and Waffles from Oakland and San Francisco residents alike for years. Whether it was for brunch or a late-night feeding, Chicken and Waffles in Jack London Square is an institution in Oakland. But just like praise from a guidebook, I worry about going to a restaurant just because everyone praises it.
The Ham was traveling out of town later that afternoon and I wanted to stuff a gut-buster of a late breakfast down my pie hole in order to sustain me till dinner. From all accounts, small portion sizes are not something you should expect from this establishment. Billed on their website as 'soul-food', there are breakfast and diner staples as well as their namesake. I decided on something simple and familiar, southern-fried breast of chicken, a waffle and buttered grits. I hoped I wasn't ordering the equivalent of a generic hamburger, fries, and a vanilla milk shake but the sign said Chicken and Waffles, so this seemed like the right choice.
Before the full blown critical review on the food, the service here was no better or worse than any diner I've been to, perhaps below average. The Denny's in Emeryville had a smoother breakfast service with a more up-beat service staff. My father and I have been to the Emeryville Denny's several times, as well as the Claremont Diner, simply as a reference; both have better and more friendly service. So don't expect anything special here. I think the customers had more pizzazz than the staff. You could hear patrons attempting to engage the service staff, but to no avail. The staff here are order takers, nothing more.
The transition from the service staff being nothing more than order takers sets the tone for my review of the food. The food has no soul. Like James Bond played by George Lazenby; there is no character behind the legend. The name Chicken and Waffles was on the marquee, but when I took my first bites I found less character in the meal than all the hype made it out to be.
The chicken was generally dry and lacked any seasoning. I had to pick apart my breast and season each piece with salt and the occasional dab of hot sauce. Sure, I ordered a drier cut of chicken, but I'm talking bone dry. When I think of Southern-Fried Chicken, I think of seasoning, crispy on the outside, moist on the inside. The chicken lacked all three. I'm sure I'm probably offending someone, but I have to be critical of what I ate. For comparison purposes, the fried chicken at SPQR is delicious if you're a San Francisco reader. For my Fresno readership, the Basque Hotel served a delicious fried chicken for years. I know fried chicken and what it's supposed to taste like. Mom made hers better with Bisquick in the oven back in 1974.
The grits were also under-salted. Sure, there was tons of butter scooped in, but the salt needs to be incorporated early in the process, not as a condiment. Grits, like polenta, need to cook in something other than tap water. I've cooked a lot of grits and polenta over the years and these grits were bland. I'm not complaining about using quick grits. I'm upset with a lack of seasoning and a general laziness with the butter. The grits seemed like an afterthought to me.
And then there's the waffle. The waffle also had plenty of butter on it, but lacked any real crunch, depth, or lightness. Disappointing. Denny's does a better job. Sorry, but this waffle looked like an oversized Eggo. I could hear the spray can of non-stick cooking chemicals being sprayed somewhere in the kitchen. I'm guessing it's on the waffle iron, but I have no proof of such.
I'm sure there are plenty of people that will not stop eating because of my review. That's fine. Restaurants take on a life of their own sometimes and there is nothing people can do about it. I won't be returning.