Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, Inglewood, Calif./Los Angeles
It’s rare for a dish to start in one location and become the delicacy of a completely different location. Sure, you see dishes transported to different cities and become gems in their new homes, as well as knock-offs of the original that show up under a new name. You can even see a dish named after something in one city become a hit in a completely different city. But when one place creates a dish, it’s usually that city’s dish to call its own for as long as it’s around. You just don’t see dishes start in one place and become associated with another.
But when it comes to the case of chicken and waffles, it really shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that it doesn’t exactly follow the traditional rules. After all, the dish itself doesn’t come close to following the traditional rules. Dinner and breakfast at the same time? Fried poultry and a sweet waffle simultaneously? Not exactly what most people expect from their meals. But that’s what chicken and waffles is, and it’s a combination that has been going strong for decades now. The tradition dates back to at least the 1930’s, when according to legend, restaurant patrons in Harlem, N.Y. began to request both breakfast and dinner at the same time. Apparently, it had something to do with getting off after a night on the town and wanting to get both meals taken care of at the same time.
Whatever reason, people loved the idea, and the Wells Supper Club began offering the combination to its hungry guests. But unlike the city’s rich culture and music scene, chicken and waffles didn’t get the attention quality usually causes. The dish was popular in Harlem, but it wasn’t getting attention outside of the neighborhood. The city of New York just didn’t have space for yet another new iconic dish to add to its ever-growing stable.
But in the 1970’s, Herb Hudson saw an opportunity in bringing the Harlem taste to the west, specifically the city of Los Angeles and its suburbs. Hudson, a Harlem native, was familiar with two things: chicken and waffles, and the business of music and television. If there’s one thing that Los Angeles is known for, it’s celebrities. You pretty much can’t walk half a mile without finding some reference to a celebrity in Los Angeles, and that means that celebrities are definitely the best way to get your business out there in the City of Angels.
In Hudson’s case, that meant getting them to talk up his business and visit at every opportunity. What he did was pass the word along to celebrities that he had a new chicken and waffles restaurant open called Roscoe’s, and they soon informed other celebrities about the interesting combination. Eventually, celebrities started passing on tips that they would be heading to Roscoe’s, and in a star-crazed city, that’s a sure way to get people to come. Through his own connections and some clever planning, Hudson had his franchise and chicken and waffles had officially become a Los Angeles staple.
But as powerful as word of mouth and celebrity sightings are, they’re not going to do the trick forever. That might be how Roscoe’s got its foot in the door, but at the end of the day, it’s all about the results you deliver. Fortunately, Hudson wasn’t all sizzle and no steak, or in this case, all breading and no chicken. As time went on, the reason to come to Roscoe’s became less about the celebrity and more about the simple quality of what you were eating. Travel Channel even called it the No. 2 place in the entire country, only losing to Connecticut-based Louis’ Lunch, the restaurant that invented the hamburger. That’s pretty high praise, and that was why Amy and I knew we had to make this trip on our visit to Los Angeles to see Simon. Truthfully, when we sketched this trip out, this was third on the list of what I wanted to accomplish in Los Angeles, behind only seeing my brother and seeing a UCLA basketball game at Pauley Pavilion. When a restaurant gets to No. 2 in the nation, it’s worth seeing what the hype is all about.
With that being the case, there was only one thing to do when we arrived in Inglewood: order the dish that made this place famous. Truth be told, Roscoe’s actually has several ways that you can order chicken and waffles, with one of the main ones now being the Obama Special, obviously named for the current president. Previously, it was known as the Country Boy, and it consists of three chicken wings, plus either a waffle, potato salad or french fries. If one waffle isn’t enough for you, or if you just aren’t a fan of chicken wings, no problem. The Scoe’s consists of 1/4 chicken plus two waffles, and Herb’s Special ups the ante by making it half a chicken along with two waffles. Both offer solid values.
Or you can say the heck with the combos and make it an a la carte order, which is what Amy and I chose to do. What can I say, we each like what we like. She’s always going to choose a chicken breast over any other part of the bird, and I’ve always been a fan of the dark meat, because I just find it so much more flavorful than a breast or a wing. Plus, I didn’t feel like taking my chances on only being able to order certain parts of the chicken if I opted for the Scoe’s or Herb’s Special, so I have no idea how ordering 1/4 or 1/2 of a chicken works here. What I do know is that I had an easy call here for a meal: thigh, leg and waffle. Perfect combination right there, and I couldn’t wait to try it.
As soon as I tasted it, I knew that the hype was totally worth it. This combination was simply as good as it gets, and it started with the chicken thigh. I’ve had some of the best chicken in the world, and this wasn’t too far off. It’s perfectly spiced, breaded well and so flavorful. What makes it so good is that it’s juicy but not greasy, a delicate balance that many try but only a select few achieve. The thigh was so good that it actually made the leg redundant. Don’t get me wrong, the leg is quite tasty, but truthfully, I’d rather have had two thighs instead of a thigh and a leg.
But where Roscoe’s really stands out is the waffle. I’ve had outstanding chicken and waffles before, but what makes Roscoe’s even better is the taste of the waffle. Little-known fact about me: I absolutely love the taste of butter pecan flavoring. I’m not the biggest fan of pecans themselves, but something about the butter pecan flavor just absolutely works beautifully. As soon as I drenched my waffle in syrup and took my first bite, I noticed a very familiar flavor permeating throughout the sweet mix of waffle: butter pecan. Perfection right there. The waffle texture is soft, fluffy and absorbs syrup beautifully, providing the perfect combination with the chicken. I loved every bit of my waffle, and really, I would come to Roscoe’s just for the waffle, and yes, I mean I would fly from Davenport to Los Angeles just for a waffle if I could afford it.
Back on the chicken front, Amy’s chicken breast was just as outstanding as my chicken thighs. Much like the thigh, it was a step behind the absolute top that is Willie Mae’s, but a step behind Willie Mae’s is still pretty dang amazing. The chicken is absolutely wonderful, breaded well, juicy and flavorful. But that was something that she was expecting. What she wasn’t expecting was the quality of the macaroni and cheese that I ordered as a side.
On first glance, the macaroni and cheese is the dark side of Roscoe’s, because the most obvious thing about it is that it’s expensive. When you pay five dollars for macaroni and cheese, you expect a huge portion of it. Instead, it’s a regular-sized side dish. When it comes out, you honestly wonder how in the world it could be worth five bucks. But when you taste it, you realize that it’s worth every cent, because the pasta is perfect and the cheese is both melted throughout and flavored perfectly.
I’ve never met a macaroni and cheese I didn’t love, and this might be the best I’ve ever had. Amy, on the other hand, hates macaroni and cheese in all forms…except this was her Drover. Much like the whiskey-soaked steak in Nebraska, Amy didn’t hate this macaroni and cheese. When Amy doesn’t hate your macaroni and cheese, you’ve really done a great job with it. The cornbread was also fantastic, having all of the necessary savory and sweet flavors that make up a good cornbread. Soul food is just something special.
Breaking with our tradition, Simon opted for a chicken sandwich with potato salad, which truthfully is another fine choice. I’ve never been the biggest fan of potato salad (I blame my father for always having it around growing up), but sometimes it works well, and this was one of those times. Potato salad, to be done right, must be creamy and properly spiced, almost always with dill, and this hit the mark. As for the chicken sandwich, this place simply knows chicken, bone or no bone.
Harlem might have been the place that started the idea of chicken and waffles, but it’s Los Angeles that has perfected it. Roscoe’s is what made it mainstream, and that’s because Roscoe’s made it outstanding. It’s really not a stretch to say that you haven’t really been to Los Angeles until you’ve made it to Roscoe’s.
Time to go: Morning, evening or late night. Roscoe’s opens at 8 a.m. in six of its seven locations and stays open until midnight at five out of seven, with some staying out until as late as 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. Chicken and waffles are meant to be an evening meal.
Wait during my visit: None. Seven locations and a late trip pretty much means no wait.
Location: We went to the location at 621 West Manchester Boulevard near the former Great Western Forum (which had to be the best corporate name for an arena ever) in Inglewood, Calif. Others exist in Hollywood, Pasadena and Anaheim.
Cost: It’s not anywhere near as cheap as you’d think. If you stick to chicken and waffles, it’s not expensive at all, running about $10 per person. But when you add sides, that’s where the costs really add up. On the other side of the coin, the sides are worth every cent. Also, skip the Sunrise and Sunset drinks. Lemonade and orange juice mixed together could be a good thing. Paying more than two dollars for lemonade and orange juice mixed together is definitely not.
Parking: It was a challenge, but not too terrible. We just had to grab the last spot in the lot and park.
Seating arrangement: Tables and chairs or booths are your options.
Specialty items: Chicken, waffles, macaroni and cheese