The first time I ate fried chicken at a Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles was about 20 years ago in Long Beach. There was a wait, as I'm told there always is on Sunday mornings; half the crowd was in church clothes. When I was finally seated in that pink-neon-bathed diner, I ate the fowl as I do all fried chickens, with my fingers digging deep into the crisp skin and moist meat, then dousing everything in sight with Red Rooster hot sauce. But here, for the first time, the chicken came with a waffle–two foods that, until that point in my life, had been separated by at least a few hours of digestion. On the plate and in my mouth, something wonderful happened: The hot sauce swirled into the maple syrup, and the sweet, sticky flavors of breakfast blended with the salty, greasy, spicy, fried ones of lunch. It was kismet.
These days, you can't go to a Sunday-brunch buffet without seeing fried chicken next to the waffles. Newer, weirder combos such as Korean tacos and ice-cream-stuffed doughnuts have made chicken and waffles as old school as bacon and eggs. But this couldn't have happened without Roscoe's. The chain may not have invented the pairing (there are some theories it existed even in Thomas Jefferson's time), but Roscoe's has done it to such success since its inception in 1975 that the brand became synonymous with "chicken and waffles," mentioned in movies such as Swingers and eaten by everyone from Snoop Dogg to President Barack Obama (whom the restaurant honors by naming a three-wing-and-a-waffle plate "The Obama Special"). But it wasn't until late this summer that Roscoe's finally opened its first Orange County restaurant, a few clicks up Harbor Boulevard from where the Disney tourist district fades into the real Anaheim.
When you go to this Roscoe's, you find security guards directing the parking. While you can expect a wait, it won't be long or unpleasant, and there are porch chairs to sit on. And when you're summoned, you're lead into the packed house with the efficiency of LAX air-traffic control. Everything is easy and effortless here. The waitstaff are as warm as they are conscientious of your needs. And when a birthday celebrant is present, the employees sing and clap with such exuberance you can hear it clear from the other corner of the restaurant.
And the food? The waffle, as round as an Eggo but with twice as many dimples, comes with a huge ice-cream-sized scoop of butter and isn't so much crisp as it is soft and bread-like–a sponge for the syrup. But there's the slightest hint of cinnamon in it, which, as counterintuitive as it may sound, makes it work even better with the chicken.
While I've had better fried chicken from Disneyland's Plaza Inn, the OC Fair and countless Korean purveyors who have since shown us how multifaceted fried chicken can be, there's something artisanal and stubbornly Southern in how Roscoe's insists on frying its chickens in small batches, half-submerged in cast-iron pans. The method can be temperamental and slow, occasionally resulting in a piece of chicken dripping with grease. Yet, I've not encountered any meat that was less than perfectly cooked, with the skin halfway rendered and covered in a thin veneer of its seasoned crust.
It's my belief that one should always eat chicken here with a waffle–not just because that's the whole point, but also because the other sides just aren't very good. While the collard greens and mac and cheese are faultless, mushy rice and watery beans bogged down the red beans and rice. The biscuits advertised as "hot and fluffy" were cold and hard on two visits. And the grits required more butter to be swirled into it than I'd use for two waffles.
The only reason to deviate from the waffle-and-chicken combo is the chicken chili cheese fries. Here, over a bed of fried potato doppelgangers to In-N-Out's fries, a smooth-as-pudding meaty chili is spread on top as though it were a comforter, then sprinkled with cheese and pieces of chopped-up fried chicken. I'd avoid the other starch-laden dish called the Big Mamma Special, for which scrambled eggs are served next to boulders of plain boiled potatoes smothered in a dull, pasty gravy with slices of onion in it.
You could, by the way, have your fried chicken dipped in the same gravy, a dish in which it works better, but why would you? You need only one lubricant for chicken and waffles, and it comes from the accidental mixing of maple syrup and hot sauce. No other interloper should come between a duo as inseparable as Bert and Ernie.
Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles, 12110 S. Harbor Blvd., Anaheim, (714) 823-4134; www.roscoeschickenandwaffles.com. Open Mon.-Thurs., 7 a.m.-8 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sun., 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Meal for two, $30-$40, food only. Beer and wine.