An open letter to Winger's (Or: If it ain't broke, keep screwing around until it is)

I love chicken and waffles.  As in together, as a combination.  I have ever since my grandparents took me to Disneyland one year as a very young child and we stopped at Roscoe's.  Of course it wasn't a dish that I really had access to in Boise, at least not until fairly recently.  These days it seems like you can get it almost anywhere, from IHOP to Fork, from Shanaz to Solid...and, as I'm sure you've figured out by now, Winger's, which is my favored place for a C&W fix.  Or at least it used to be.

I first tried Winger's take on chicken and waffles about a year ago.  My roommate was going in for back surgery, and I was taking her youngest daughter to dinner.  I chose Winger's not only because they have a fairly extensive kid's menu, but also because they had just brought a selection of chicken and waffle dishes onto the menu.  The one that caught my attention was the slightly eyebrow-raising "Ta-Ta's and Waffle", which not only deserved a look for the fact that it came with two boneless, hand-breaded fried chicken breasts, but also because a portion of every order sold went to benefit breast cancer charities, which was not only an awesome gesture but a clever attempt at circumventing any outrage the name might draw.

Ta-Ta's and Waffle

This was the best I've ever had this dish.  With most of the other places in town using wings (which I've always thought of as a lot of work with not much reward), infused syrups, flavored butters or specialty waffles, it was nice to just have a good Belgian waffle with two pieces of nicely crispy chicken so big that they hung over the sides a bit.  You had to be careful with the syrup, which was warmed so much that it was positively thin and came flooding out of the dispenser.  This molten sugar reduced the waffle to mush wherever it landed, but drizzled over the chicken it allowed the waffle to keep its integrity, while the lack of bones allowed one to devour the whole with impunity.  As for the flavors: completely classic.  Belgian waffle, whipped butter, maple syrup and of course the savory fried chicken seasonings.

I didn't visit that night with the intention of writing the place up, but had every intention of returning and doing a review after THAT visit.  Well, one thing lead to another (and another, and another), and I didn't end up making it back until today.  The promotional chicken and waffle offerings are gone now, with only one option left on the menu.  Luckily it was the breasts one and not thing wings one, but it's now called Maple Fried Chicken & Waffles.  The menu describes it as "Southern-Style chicken breasts, pan fried with a hint of crunchy maple, served with Nellie's Famous Waffle Tower".  Hint of crunchy maple?  Huh.  And what's a waffle tower?  I asked our waitress, who informed me that they now separate the waffle into four sections and stack it in an attempt to be...artistic?  Whatever, I thought to myself.  It's still a waffle and two chicken breasts (a little crunchy maple aside).  How much difference can a name change and a slightly different presentation make?

Maple Fried Chicken & Waffles

Well, quite a bit actually.  The chicken itself now has a sweetness to it from the maple rather than the savory counterbalancing flavor that it used to, and there's not a lot of crunch involved, maple or otherwise.  The pieces are a little smaller (I can't help thinking that the new presentation method conveniently hides that fact), and it turns out that a stacked waffle steams itself into a state of soggy limpness if left on the counter for a minute or two while waiting for the waitress to serve it.  And craisins?  What the hell is with the craisins?  The waitress returned to refill our drinks just as I was brushing them off my food, prompting her to ask if I didn't like them.  When I pointed out that the menu made no mention of them, she said it the latest presentation tweak, the previous one being a sprig of rosemary driven through the waffle segments to keep them vertical (also not mentioned on the menu).  Once I'd ditched the fruit, I unstacked the waffle to keep it from deteriorating any further and arranged everything so that it looked more so like what I remembered from my previous visit.  Next I reached for the syrup, only to find that it was room temperature.  I had brought both of the roommate's kids this time, and both had ordered the waffle from the kid's menu.  Because theirs weren't stacked, they had retained that nice, crispy outside.  I envied that they had at least that as I worked through my limp waffle, sweet chicken and cold syrup, most of my enthusiasm gone now.

Why did this happen?  Weren't there enough places around putting their little spin on this classic combo that it would have been cool enough just to keep it simple?  Why would a meat and potatoes place be so concerned with concept, to the point where the best things about the dish are sacrificed and leave nothing but kitsch behind?

And most importantly, where do I get my fix now?

UPDATE:  Several months after an interesting conversation with Winger's about this issue via Facebook, they have gone back to the original preparation (which is now just called Chicken and Waffles)!

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