Eating out an LA classic.
In my life there are two things I crave above all else: pussy and fried chicken (and—depending on the lunar calendar—not necessarily in that particular order). As much as I would like to talk about both vices and their corresponding relationship to one another, I’ll keep this writing on par with the subject at hand: Roscoe’s! But first, as always, context....
I grew up in a Middle Eastern household. On any given night our hallways were filled with the pungent fragrances of turmeric, za’atar, baharat, sumac, cardamom, harissa, and anything else that sounds like it arrived here via camel. My house smelled like the goddamn flea market in Aladdin. Mom’s arsenal consisted mainly of slow cooked stews, juicy roasts, oily salads, nut dips, and colorful rices. Needless to say, already at a very young age nothing seemed to shock or excite my sense of smell anymore, but there was an aural sensation that made me stop whatever I was doing and sleepwalk towards the stove: the unmistakable sizzle of poultry...in oil...on skillet! Nothing deep fried creates an orchestra of hissing and crackling quite like chicken. Schnitzel was the only form of fried chicken my mom made, and I absolutely worshipped it. She’d take a breast, pound it with a mallet until it was thinned and tenderized, then season, bread, fry and serve with a dash of lemon. She was a fantastic cook, but due to her ethnically limited palette I was sheltered from the expansive reach of most other fried chicken varieties.
That was until the summer of 1987, when I was on a bus en route to a summer sleepover camp and we stopped for lunch at the legendary Los Angeles fast food eatery, Pioneer Chicken (currently all but extinct since being acquired by Popeyes). That afternoon I had my very first taste of Southern fried chicken. Palming a drumstick in each hand, grease dripping down my wrists, mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the lord! Ever since I’ve been on a lifelong path, a pilgrimage if you will, of seeking and consuming as many fried chicken variations as I can before (or until) I die. And if there is one place that is synonymous with Los Angeles and Fried Chicken, it’s the fabled and storied Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles.
In the early 1970s, Harlem native Herb Hudson decided to head west in search of...well, it was Harlem in the 70s, one can only imagine he just wanted to get the fuck out of there! When he arrived in Los Angeles he discovered the city lacked a particular breakfast meal he enjoyed on a regular basis: chicken and waffles. This combination originated in the South and started as a simple recipe of chicken, biscuits and molasses, eventually transformed into the harmonious pairing we know and love today. The first documented establishment to peddle the dish was a well known Harlem restaurant that Herb frequented named the Wells Supper Club: Home of Chicken and Waffles Since 1938, which started selling the dish to clubgoers in the dusk of the Jazz Age, seemingly as a late night snack for folks who couldn't decide between dinner and breakfast. Recognizing this culinary void in LA, Herb seized the opportunity by opening his flagship restaurant on Gower Street in Hollywood in 1975. Roscoe's innovative recipe quickly garnered a reputation as a late night, after party treat. Fast forward 42 years, Roscoe’s has blossomed into a multi-restaurant mainstay and institution populated with Hollywood stars and common working class folk alike. I don’t give a shit what you’re selling, anything that’s been mentioned in a Biggie lyric AND a Tarantino film commands respect!
But Roscoe’s hasn’t always been on the gravy train (bet your ass that pun was intended). Its parent company, East Coast Foods Inc., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March 2016 to cover debts upwards of $50 million. This happened mere months after the company was sued by former employee, Daniel Beasley, a black man who led a wrongful termination suit citing racial discrimination and sexual harassment. Beasley won the case and was awarded $3.2 million (which they never paid him); the bankruptcy judge also ordered Herb be removed as CEO (which also never happened), and Snoop Dogg showed interest in acquiring and saving the chain (sadly, this too never came to fruition). Despite all the pitfalls, Roscoe’s hasn’t closed any of its seven locations and continues to flourish, building new restaurants and expanding its delicious reach across different races, ethnicities, and the country. Once serving a predominantly black clientele, nowadays you’d be hard pressed to find a location with an occupancy of less than half white customers. As far as I’m concerned, that’s simply a testament to the power of fried chicken.
But why? What is it about this beloved dish that is so captivating? For me a big part of it is nostalgia and a rich history. Freed slaves sold it through the windows of train cars from railroad platforms in whistle-stop towns. Children carried it in shoe boxes on long journeys. A picnic basket isn't complete without it. It’s a dish that is profoundly Southern, and yet it is cooked passionately across the country. So simple, yet the preparation of fried chicken can be a cantankerous subject. Wars have been waged over which starch to use and how to adhere it to the bird’s scrotum-like flesh. Should you brine the meat? The meat! White or dark? Should the boiling culprit be lard or oil? But what oil – vegetable, peanut, or godforsaken coconut??? What about the temperature? Too low, the oil will seep into the food, making it greasy and sicken- ing; too high, it can dry out the food and oxidize the oil. Goddamnit I’m starving!
Look, at the end of the day all you really want is chicken that tastes like chicken, with an encrusted shell that snaps and fractures with brittleness. If you haven’t guessed it by now, my fried chicken obsession is savage as fuck. It’s a compulsion that is akin to the often misunderstood hobby of birdwatching. But I don’t watch birds, I fry those motherfuckers and eat them.