The Dirty Bird Chicken & Waffles (Toronto)

Dirty Bird Chicken and Waffles

The age old saying goes – what came first the chicken or the egg? But, when it comes to chicken and waffles, what intrigues me more is why a dish, synonymous with the American South, first commercially served in New York? Leading me to rephrase the question to: what came first the North or the South?

We credit the Pilgrims for bringing waffles to America after passing Holland and introducing the recipe to New Amsterdam, the modern day New York. They even ate chicken and waffles, topping theirs with pulled chicken and gravy.

It wasn’t until 1938, when Harlem’s Wells Supper Club served the chicken in its fried form. Wells, a restaurant frequented by jazz musicians, concocted the dish as a solution to their diner’s eating hours. Too late for dinner yet too early for breakfast, chicken and waffles was the perfect balance offering a satisfying savoury element paired with a breakfast eat. Herb Hudson further popularized the tradition by opening Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles in Los Angeles, introducing the dish to artists in the area.

Which brings us back to my original thought: how did this New York dish signify the South? The answer may lie within the Civil War of the 1860’s. Previously, chicken and waffles were served, albeit privately, in the South after Thomas Jefferson brought a waffle iron from France; chicken was eaten with biscuits and gravy, so it’s not implausible that a waffle soon substituted the biscuit.

African American slaves, often fed from their owner’s leftovers, would have developed a liking to the meal, eating it before long church services during holidays. Then the Civil War happened, where coincidentally fried chicken was also served as the cooking method made the poultry less susceptible to spoilage. After the war, when slaves were freed, many emigrated to the North in search of jobs and a better life. Likely it was these first migrants who brought the dish to New York, the dish later served at Wells Supper Club.

The dish’s pilgrimage continues as it makes its way south of the border into Canada. Over the last year, it’s popping up on menus everywhere and at restaurants like Dirty Bird Chicken and Waffles, they even cook it exclusively. Dirty Bird isn’t the diners of the U.S.A., rather it’s a casual eatery that’s largely takeout with about a dozen first-come first-serve seats.

Thankfully, the chicken is fried to order – so don’t expect the line to move quickly or the wait to be brief. Their menu is also thigh, legs and wings only; if you want white meat, you’re in for a disappointment. Luckily, I love dark meat so the menu addresses my need and I opted for the Up North Trip ($14) consisting of three drumsticks, a full waffle and coleslaw.

After waiting over twenty minutes and smelling the fried aroma, I was salivating. Upon cracking open the box I was greeted with dark golden chicken pieces and large waffle pieces.

Chicken and waffles

Although the chicken was hot and juicy, the batter lacked seasoning and flakiness – it was really just one step up from KFC with the crust actually reminding me of the fast food chain. The under seasoning I can live with – after all, it’s reasonable to assume diners may want to dunk the chicken in syrup or add some hot sauce. But, the thin skin that lacked crunch was a disappointment.

The waffle was nicely cooked with a crispy airy crust, but would be even better if the batter incorporated more egg and butter to give the waffle a richness to stand up against the chicken. I did appreciate that Dirty Bird served theirs with maple syrup, a nod to Canada, rather than the U.S.A.’s typical thick table variety.

No matter where it originates from, chickens and waffles is a true fusing dish: sweet and savoury in terms of taste; European and American in culture; and dinner and breakfast for meals. Classes converge and taste buds intertwine, but nothing matters when something is finger licking good.

Overall mark - 6.5 out of 10

How To Find Them
 Location: Toronto, Canada
 Address: 79 Kensington Avenue

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Gastro World's Grading System

  • Anything under 5 - I really disliked and will never go back
  • 6 - decent restaurant but I likely won't return
  • 7 - decent restaurant and I will likely return
  • 8 - great restaurant that I'd be happy to recommend
  • 9 - fantastic restaurant that I would love to visit regularly and highly recommend
  • 10 - absolute perfection!

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