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Six fried chicken wings encircle the round "Belgian" waffle dusted with powdered sugar. The Breakfast Klub's chicken is hot and crusty, and so are the waffles. Individually they each taste just fine. I pull the meat off a wing with my front teeth, slice a big wedge of waffle and try the two together. Sorry, no fireworks. It's my first encounter with the legendary chicken and waffles concept, and I don't get it. Maybe I'm taking it too seriously.
My dining companion is fairly happy with her French toast, which is made with that double-thickness white bread called Texas toast. The eggs are nice and fluffy, but the ham is an oval slice of some pressed product. The cooking is first-rate, but I wish The Breakfast Klub bought better bread and real ham. I have come to expect a lot from this modest restaurant, which opened a little more than a month ago at the corner of Travis and Alabama. That's because most of what I've had here has been outstanding.
The first time I visited, I wandered in by myself and ate breakfast for lunch. It looks like a shoestring operation, with bare concrete floors and rough tables. The menu of African-American breakfast foods has some real surprises, though, starting with the coffee section. I expected Folgers or Maryland Club, or maybe some Louisiana-style café au lait with chicory. Instead, there is Costa Rican and Kenyan coffee in big help-yourself thermos dispensers, plus a full menu of espresso, cappuccino, latte and the rest.
Houston, TX 77002
Region: Downtown/ Midtown
Catfish and grits: $8
Chicken and waffles: $6
Breakfast special (before 9 a.m.): $4.50, (after 9 a.m.): $6
French toast with eggs and sausage: $5.50
Meaty 3 omelet: $6
Bottomless cup of coffee: $1.50
Cappuccino: $2.50, (large) $3
Also on the menu were "Katfish & Grits," a dish I'd never heard of, and "Wings & Waffles," a combination I'd always wanted to try. And then there were country sausages, breakfast chops, biscuits and gravy, and all kinds of other morning delights. I didn't even read the sandwich and salad menu. I figured they don't call it The Breakfast Klub for nothing. So I started at the beginning, with a "Breakfast Special": two eggs, choice of ham, bacon or sausage, with hash browns or grits and toast or biscuits.
I went for the patty-style sausage, in which the ground pork mixture is formed into a thick puck and cooked until well done but still juicy. The meat was spicy, although not too piquant; it had a nice herbal tang, probably from ground sage. Both the patty and link sausages come from Burt's Meat Market (5910 Lyons), one of the city's most serious sausage makers. The fried eggs were perfect, and the biscuits, though not made on the premises, were fresh and flaky. I had fluffy white grits on the side, with plenty of butter. It was a terrific breakfast. But when I was through, I found myself staring at the next table. The woman there was eating catfish and grits with fried eggs, and it looked awfully good. "The eggs are always greener ," I guess.
One of the downsides to the food critic business is that you don't always get to order what you want. On my second visit, I want to try the catfish and grits. But so does my dining partner. And he won't budge. So I reluctantly switch to the "Meaty 3" omelet after reminding him several times that he has to let me taste the catfish and grits. He orders the dish with scrambled eggs instead of the over-easy ones I had in mind, but that's okay. I can already taste the crisp fried catfish and grits drowned in butter.
When our food arrives, he promptly dumps pancake syrup all over the grits. "You've got to be kidding," I stutter in complete shock.
"What? I love syrup on my grits!" he says.
"With catfish?" I moan.
"Sure, why not!" he says with a smile. I taste the fish with some grits that haven't been sweetened yet. It's a great combination, but in my mind, it would taste even better with some egg yolk and butter flavors mixed in.
The Meaty 3 omelet is rolled up in a tight cylinder, like a burrito with the fillings in the skin. Little bits of finely diced ham, bacon and sausage sparkle in the egg suspension like bits of stained glass in a church window. This cooking technique makes the eggs drier than I like them, but it's a nice presentation.
Catfish and grits is a very popular dish in the Southeast, particularly in Georgia and the Carolinas, owner and head chef Marcus Davis says when he strolls over to our table to check on us. In fact, Clemson University's agricultural department hosts an annual gathering called Catfish and Grits. Judging by the photos on their Web site, I'd guess that the traditional combination is actually catfish and cheese grits, but The Breakfast Klub version is close enough. "It's been our most popular dish," says Davis. The chicken and waffles is popular too. That's a West Coast invention, the chef says. He's referring to Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles, the L.A. chain that made the kooky combination famous.
I end up going back to The Breakfast Klub just to try the catfish and grits again. This time I get them with fried eggs, over easy, and butter in the grits. The yolks, buttery grits and crisp fried fish are as sensational together as I guessed they would be, and even better with a dash of Tabasco on each bite. This is the one meal that shouldn't be missed at The Breakfast Klub -- even if you put syrup on your grits.
Breakfast is a peculiar meal. Pouring syrup on grits served with eggs and catfish seems insane to me because it combines sweet and savory. But chicken and waffles is exactly the same idea. I get the feeling there is no combination of foods that would faze Marcus Davis. "You can tell a lot about a person by how they eat their breakfast," he says with a knowing grin when I tell him about the syrup-in-the-grits incident. "Some people put jelly in their grits. Some mix their grits and eggs up together. We got one guy spreads his grits in a layer on top of his toast." It's a meal that encourages improvisation, he shrugs.
It was just such a spirit of creativity that gave birth to chicken and waffles. Roscoe's has done so well with the odd combination in California that it has inspired others around the country to take up the chicken and waffles banner. Sandora's Box in Dallas and Roy Henry's Famous Chicken and Waffles in Austin tried to bring the concept to Texas. Last I heard, they were both out of business. Here in Houston, the Fusion Café has chicken and waffles on the menu. (Although the location on Main Street, around the corner from The Breakfast Klub, has closed its doors, the other location in the Village is still serving them.) A former Pip squad leader and a gospel great teamed up to open Gladys Knight and Ron Winans' Chicken and Waffles on Peachtree Street in Atlanta about five years ago. This appears to be the only restaurant dedicated to chicken and waffles that's made it in the South -- although one wonders if it's the star power or the chicken and waffles that brings in the crowds.
What really makes chicken and waffles odd is that it's an African- American dish that doesn't have anything to do with the South, which may explain why it has been slower to catch on here than in L.A. and other cities unsteeped in Southern tradition. But it didn't start out on the West Coast, as Davis and most other people assume, either. It actually started in Harlem.
The details are a little vague, but legend has it that the combination originated during the Harlem Renaissance. The now shuttered Wells Restaurant on Seventh Avenue was famous for the dish and may have been its birthplace. But it was really the "invention" of black musicians who gathered in Harlem for late-night jam sessions after their regular shows. They would wind up the evening at three or four in the morning with a meal at an all-night restaurant. Some couldn't decide between fried chicken or breakfast food at that late hour, so they ordered both. This explains a lot about chicken and waffles -- especially when you take into account the fact that jazz musicians of this era were reportedly fond of smoking marijuana while they played.
Chicken and waffles, it seems, isn't one of those solemn culinary marriages like truffles and foie gras. It's a lark. Like pretzels and chocolate ice cream. A come-home-stoned, stand-in-front-of-the-refrigerator kind of concoction.
Now that I have gained an insight into the chicken and waffles thing, I want to go back to The Breakfast Klub and try it again in a different frame of mind. But this brings up another problem: The Breakfast Klub opens at six in the morning and closes at two in the afternoon.
Chicken and waffles makes the most sense at four in the morning.