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The first time I ever dug into a plate of Southern chicken and waffles, I was in a dingy little diner in North Carolina at 3 a.m., having arrived in the state four hours later than planned thanks to absolutely brutal traffic (damn you, I-95!).
"New Yorkers?" the waitress asked as we examined the menu. Maybe it was the Mets cap my boyfriend, James, was wearing, or maybe our accents gave us away. "Jersey," we told her.
"Close enough," she said. "Well, then, you gotta get chicken and waffles."
When she brought them to our table, they were nothing like I'd imagined. The waffles were thin and sweet, the chicken was crunchy and sweet, and—just for insurance—it was all served under a blizzard of powdered sugar with syrup on the side.
"I thought these would be more savory, and fluffier," I told James, who, unlike me, seemed happy to have his sweet tooth taken care of.
"Make 'em that way, then," he told me between bites. "With guacamole."
Guacamole is his go-to suggestion for every recipe I plan to make. If I asked what to add to pasta, he'd say guacamole. Sandwich? Guacamole. A cocktail? Tequila, lime juice—and don't forget the guacamole. I still haven't figured out whether he's serious, or if this is his way of telling me to stop asking him. But I held on to that guacamole idea, and, three years and countless tastes of chicken and waffles later, I finally got around to making them.
I want you to do something for me, okay? I want you to take your idea of what fried chicken and waffles should be—all of your reluctance to tweak the soulful, sweet version you know and love—and I want you to toss it. Right now. Just let it go, because it's only gonna hold you back. If you can do that, here's what awaits: Mexican fried chicken and green chili–corn waffles, slathered with guacamole and salsa, and layered with crispy ancho-honey bacon.
When I decided to do a Mexican-inspired spin on chicken and waffles, the first thing I thought about was what to do with the waffles themselves. Pretty quickly, my mind wound its way to green chili–chicken tamales made with masa harina, the nixtamalized corn flour. I got to work tinkering with a waffle version that incorporated both masa harina and roasted poblano peppers, eventually settling on a batter that combines those two ingredients with all-purpose flour and cornmeal. The resulting waffles are tender within and crispy on the outside, with an excellent corn-and-chili-pepper flavor.
For the fried chicken, I soaked the chicken in a mixture of buttermilk, lime juice, and hot sauce; then, mirroring the waffle batter, I rolled it in a coating of AP flour, cornmeal, and masa harina. A double coating ensures an extra-crisp crust—the only trick is to let the chicken stand for a while before frying to let the batter set and prevent it from sloughing off in the oil.
Some people insist that bone-in chicken is a must for frying, but I love using deboned thighs here. Not only does the dark meat do a good job of staying moist and juicy, but the absence of bones means you can cut through both chicken and waffles without running into any obstructions.
While the chicken and waffles alone would have been awesome, I wanted these babies fully loaded. Guacamole inspired this whole idea, so naturally that went on top (I used Kenji's amazing recipe, and you should, too). But to take it one step further, I added some bacon that I'd glazed with honey and a sprinkling of ancho chili powder before cooking.
Once the whole stack was assembled, I drizzled it all with salsa roja and Mexican crema, and garnished it with fresh cilantro.
Would I call this concoction of mine a replacement for the classic chicken and waffles? Heck no. There's no substitute for the sweet and syrupy original when that's what you want. But when you want to experience the savory excess of fully loaded nachos, plus the flavor of tamales, fried chicken, waffles, and bacon...well, then, you know where to look.