I grew up on a small farm in southwest Missouri, which, while charming, didn’t have many big-city luxuries, like widespread public transportation or neighbors living within 11 inches of our windows. But perhaps most notably, we didn’t have chicken and waffles.
It was a strange limitation, and I can’t for the life of me understand why my home state never progressed to that point. I’m certain there were chickens, and waffles were around, but we never thought to combine the two. I spent the majority of my life not even knowing that the chicken-and-waffles culinary smashup existed. When Lay’s introduced the chicken and waffles-flavored potato chips, I thought it was some kind of eccentric joke – like purple ketchup – not something people actually woke up craving on Saturday mornings.
And then I moved to Detroit. My wife and I weren’t in our Midtown apartment two minutes before the landlady told us where to find the best chicken and waffles in town. It was like a closing salutation. “I hope you enjoy the new apartment. If you’re in the mood for chicken and waffles, check out…”
And in the months that followed, nearly every Detroiter we met would start the conversation by welcoming us to the city and then end it by passionately telling us where we could sit down and enjoy the greatest chicken and waffles in all the land. And while it’s a readily accepted fact that Detroit creates the finest chicken and waffles, everyone I spoke to referred to different restaurants as having the true, unadulterated, incomparable, best chicken and waffles. There was very little consensus.
So I’ve jumped on the Detroit bandwagon to discover where some of the greatest chicken and waffles are roosting in this city. I spent a few weeks researching the topic and picking the brains of locals, and with a sober mind and a hungry stomach I’ve chosen four different restaurants that are applauded for their takes on this classic dish. So join me as I take a hard (and delicious) look at chicken and waffles across the city to see who truly has the best battered and buttered wares around.
The Hudson Cafe
Recommended by: A hungry Quicken Loans team member
Where: 1241 Woodward Ave.
Parking: You might want to bring a roll of quarters for metered parking.
Atmosphere: Right in the heart of downtown, The Hudson Cafe is perfect for breakfast, second breakfast, brunch and early afternoon cravings. The staff is top-notch, you couldn’t ask for a better location, and the food murals on the walls are both aesthetically pleasing and hunger inducing.
I had a slight wait on the Saturday morning I visited (this place is popular), but it gave me a few moments to do some grocery shopping at Eastern Market, which is just a few minutes away. Bell peppers for 50 cents. Can you believe that?
The Chicken and Waffles: The Hudson Cafe might have some of the best chicken on the map. I found myself becoming so enthusiastic about it that I completely forgot about the waffle, which was on the crispier side of the spectrum. This was also the only restaurant where the syrup (correctly pronounced “sur-up” in Missouri) was the lone topping provided. It was a simpler approach to the chicken and waffles recipe, but they got the sweet/salty combo down pat.
Chicken to Waffle Ratio: 5 chicken to 1 waffle
Cost: With tax and good company, this chicken and waffles cost $13.78.
Fullness Scale: It may have put some strain on my belt, but with some serious gumption I was able to clean my plate. The Hudson Cafe may specialize in breakfast, but their cuisine will carry you over until lunch and supper.
New Center Eatery
Recommended by: A member at Woodside Bible Church in Detroit who eats chicken and waffles religiously
Where: 3100 W. Grand Blvd.
Parking: Forget it – just call Uber.
Atmosphere: Between the soulful music and the dim mood lighting, New Center Eatery is the place to go when you need to slow down and enjoy the finer things. And they have the best service in town. My waiter was one of the most polite, helpful people I have ever met. He regularly checked on how I was enjoying my meal, and I had a good time seeing which of us could use the word “sir” in a sentence the most. It was an epic battle of etiquette.
The Chicken and Waffles: While they only take cash, New Center Eatery is worth a trip to the ATM (they have one in-house). This was the only chicken and waffles hub that surrounded me with an arsenal of sauces for my meal. I had hot sauce and ranch and syrup, and I’m sure I could have asked for mustard and purple ketchup if I wanted to.
The chicken was spectacular. It might have had slightly less meat on it than some of its competitors, but what it lacked in quantity, it made up for in quality. It just fell off the bone. And while I wouldn’t call the waffle anything special (except that there was a strawberry on it), I will say that New Center Eatery might have the best chicken and waffles combination. Between the syrup, the hot sauce, the chicken and the waffle, I found myself becoming poetic, thinking of phrases like “symphony of flavors” and “a meal that tells a story in your mouth,” and other such things that wouldn’t be appropriate for this blog. It was certainly an experience.
I should say that I choked on a piece of gristle at one point during this meal. But all chicken has the occasional sliver of sinew. And I was so caught up in the experience that I almost ate it without noticing.
Chicken to Waffle Ratio: 4 chicken to 1 waffle
Price: The daily special is normally $9.30, but I ordered after 5:00 pm, so it was only $5.30 for this plate of chicken and waffles.
Fullness Scale: Perfectly full.
Recommended by: A starving artist from the College of Creative Studies
Where: 488 Selden St.
Parking: Free and easy. If you aren’t able to find any spots on the street, there’s a fenced-in parking lot behind the building. Much appreciated, John.
Atmosphere: Honest John’s Bar and Grill could possibly be the best part about Selden Street. I’m tempted to call it a hole in the wall, but that doesn’t really do it justice. It’s more like a rare beacon of cookery on the south side of Midtown. With low lights, a pool table and a jukebox, this is a great place to bring friends after work to share a drink and some classic bar grub. And even if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like fantastic food, you should, at the very least, check out their bathrooms.
And they have the most philosophical and thought-provoking fluorescent lights.
The Chicken and Waffles: Honest John’s knows how to fill up a plate. The sheer quantity of this meal had my head spinning. The chicken-to-waffle ratio isn’t off the charts (see below), but my stomach was nearing capacity halfway through my waffle. I think it’s because the chicken is in a boneless tender form, which means there’s more meat per chicken. I’m confident I’ll get some backlash for supporting this boneless method. Readers will surely write angry letters about people who eat boneless chicken being one banana peel away from the fiery gates, but it was actually nice for slicing and combining the meal with a stab of my fork. And I didn’t have to strip the pieces of meat off the bone. It was an altogether cleaner experience.
While the waffles at Honest John’s are pretty traditional – perhaps slightly fluffier than your average spread – the real highlight of the experience is the chicken batter. It has a thicker, crispier skin than most of the places I’ve tried. In the most complimentary way possible, it reminded me of exceptionally high-quality carnival food. It was both nostalgic and delicious. My stomach felt like a kid again. My arteries did not.
Chicken to Waffle Ratio: 6 chicken tenders to 1 waffle
Cost: With tax and free smells, this chicken and waffles cost $9.01.
Fullness Scale: I just couldn’t do it. As much as I tried, I wasn’t able to finish my chicken and waffles in a single go. But I enjoy having leftovers; it prolongs the experience. My wife and I shared a nice Honest John’s snack that evening.
Update: I’ve gone back since my initial visit and conquered the plate. It wasn’t easy. Perseverance is key. Practice, practice, practice.
Kuzzo’s Chicken & Waffles
Recommended by: A famished shuttle driver for the DXF tours
Where: 19345 Livernois Ave.
Parking: There’s metered parking on the street, but I just parked in the lot at Mike’s Market.
Atmosphere: Kuzzo’s (pronounced “Cuh-zos”) has a smooth, jazzy feel that will melt away your anxieties and leave you feeling tranquil and hungry. On paper, their decorations – which include everything from a painting of Obama smoking a cigarette to a chicken coop strapped to one of the walls – might not make perfect sense, but it all flows together surprisingly well, like a perfect marriage between the deep South and jazz (and Obama). I enjoyed sitting at the bar and talking to the other customers in the restaurant; they were each quick to tell me that Kuzzo’s has the best chicken and waffles in the city. I politely told them that had yet to be determined.
Chicken and Waffles: I never knew so many options for chicken and waffles existed. There are tenders and legs and breasts and wings. You also have a choice between one waffle or two, and I even saw a girl with a red velvet waffle on her plate (this is the greatest city on earth).
After some nail biting, I decided on the “Bam Bam” combo, which consists of a single waffle with two drumsticks. This isn’t the largest meal on the menu, but it was enough to fill me up. If I wanted to push my boundaries, I could have had the “What Up Doe” combo, but I’ll let you hungrier souls try that one.
The chicken tastes like it came right out of my grandma’s kitchen (this is an accomplishment). Between the classic breading and the tenderness of the meat, this was one of the better approaches to the chicken I experienced throughout the week. The real surprise is in the waffle, though –or it might have been the syrup. There is some kind of cinnamon mix that really pushes the flavor of this meal to the next level. And while the waffles aren’t as thick as other waffles I’ve tasted, they are perfectly fluffy on the inside.
Chicken to Waffle Ratio: 2 chicken to 1 waffle (this would change with different orders)
Price: With tax and the opportunity to look the president in the eye, this chicken and waffles cost $6.36.
Fullness Scale: The Bam Bam combo was a nice snack. I think I’ll try something a little larger the next time I go.
Chicken and waffles is a staple in our city, and it has been an honor to brush up on my new cultural heritage. Each of these four restaurants has developed their own method of customizing this dish, and they all exceed in different areas. But between the different types of chicken and toppings and waffles and other variables, a lot of it comes down to personal preference. That being said, it’s clear that Detroit’s doing something right. Next time I go back to Missouri, I’ll be sure to tell them to get their act together.
And if you’d care to chime in on this conversation, let me know which chicken and waffles you like best in the city. If you think I missed a restaurant, spell it out in the comments below. I’ll check it out. I could always eat more chicken and waffles.