At Al’s Chicken and Waffles, the secret is no secret at all.
It is proclaimed by the words above the kitchen doorway: “The secret ingredient is always love.”
Says Al: “If you don’t have love, you’re not going anywhere.”
And to be sure, Albert Garrett and his first-year restaurant are set on going somewhere. He envisions a franchise one day, to pass on to his family.
Correction: It’s not his restaurant, he says. He gives all the credit to his grandchildren: Cheryl Cole and her husband, Antonio, who met at Sierra High School and stayed in Colorado Springs until moving to Omaha, Neb., a few years ago.
Then grandpa called. At 75, he needed some young uns to help run the place.
“It was something I wanted to do to give back to him,” Cheryl says. “I wanted to see him fulfill his dream.”
So here she is, peeling collard greens as she did at the kitchen table in childhood, setting the leaves aside to be chopped and tossed into a big pot of boiling, fragrant water with turkey legs. It takes three to five hours to prepare the side, just one made-from-scratch specialty at Al’s, along with mac and cheese, red beans and rice and fried okra.
And here Albert is in the hour before the Citadel Crossing storefront opens, filling cups of syrup for the regulars already assembling in Al’s sixth month. The logo Cheryl created is plastered on the wall: a cartoon chicken standing on a golden waffle, his smile and wings spread wide — as if to embrace the dish’s uninitiated.
With the Egg and I and Jersey Mike’s using the same parking lot, customary patrons have taken note of the new neighbor, peering through the windows with arched eyebrows.
“You can tell they’re puzzled,” Antonio says. “Like, ‘Wow, that’s weird.’”
It’s weird all right, says Cheryl. Don’t try to persuade her to pair the crispy, seasoned bird with the fluffy waffle and sweet, sticky drizzle. The union perplexes even the most soul-filled associates of Adrian Miller, the James Beard Award-winning author of “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time.”
“Most of them are like, ‘That doesn’t even sound good. Why even do that?’” says the Denver scholar. “It’s like mad scientist kind of stuff.”
He, for one, loves chicken and waffles. So does Albert, whose inspiration came from trying Lo-Lo’s Chicken & Waffles, one of several regional chains to adopt the niche delight.
Now, as Col. Sanders dances with Mrs. Butterworth in commercials, KFC is selling itself as the new home of chicken and waffles. But the most finger-lickin’ in town? Al knows the answer.
A more confounding question: Where did the combination begin?
“What we get asked the most is: Are we from down South?” Antonio says. “No, we’re not from down South.”
And no, chicken and waffles was not born in the South, say food scholars, including Miller, whose history in his book disappointed some.
“The feeling is that chicken and waffles is rock ‘n’ roll,” he says, “and that white people have discovered it and tried to steal it.”
But “chicken and waffles actually comes from old Europe,” Miller says. “The German immigrants land in rural Pennsylvania.” And they gave rise to what became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition, featuring a stewed chicken poured over waffles, like gravy.
By the late 1800s, a tasty tourist intrigue was known across the countryside, a concept that would move south. “That’s when creamed chicken becomes fried,” Miller says.
In the South, fried became slaves’ preferred method to cook chicken, protection against spoiling as white wives sent it to men at war. It became a distinguished centerpiece. In “Soul Food,” Miller writes that fried or baked meats “with any sort of hot quick bread, was the gold standard of plantation hospitality.”
And while waffles weren’t in what is considered the earliest African-American cookbook, circa 1881, African Americans spurred the pairing’s resurgence in the next century, Miller says.
Chicken and waffles “for whatever reason falls out of favor in the early 1900s,” he says, “and I think that created space for this Wells guy to create the jazz era myth.”
Harlem’s Wells Supper Club is popularly believed to have started the country’s craving, serving the dish in those dim hours between dinner and breakfast. In the 1970s, a black man left Harlem for Los Angeles to start Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, which became a staple among black celebrities, as did Gladys Knight’s joints in Atlanta.
Al’s wants to outdo them all. Here, a far more obscure item is found on the menu: schnitzel and waffles, a nod to Albert’s military service in Germany. He cooked and supervised in mess halls for nearly half of his 22 years with the Army.
In retirement, he returned to the Springs, where he made lasting family memories in the kitchen. Cheryl still can smell the gumbo. “The whole neighborhood could smell it,” she says. “They would come over to the house, and a lot of them would get a bowl.”
Albert would bake, too. His kids would surround him, then he’d turn around and see more kids.
Decorating cakes was a hobby. “I got pretty good at it,” he says, “until a couple years back.”
After the stroke, he struggles to keep a steady hand. The pancreatic cancer is in remission, but the bone cancer persists. He gets strength from the Lord, he says. “I hurt, but I don’t care.”
He is fulfilling a dream, however odd it might seem and taste to some. No wall hides the cooking at Al’s, so those curious, wide-eyed passersby can come in and find him, a big man with a soft voice. “Welcome,” he’ll say.