Chicken n' Waffles. Photo: Barrett Doran
Months ago, I started hearing whisperings of a local soul food restaurant that served chicken and waffles. Where the pairing of fried chicken and a syrup-covered breakfast waffle may seem a little strange to the uninitiated, this eclectic comfort food combination has been standard fare on the menus of traditional African-American restaurants for decades. The history is a little bit fuzzy, but many believe the dish traces its roots to Harlem-based restaurateurs catering to night club patrons who had danced most of the night away, and then spilled out into the streets too late to have dinner, but too early to want breakfast. Other legends claim that the pairing caught on shortly after Thomas Jefferson brought the waffle back from France in the 1790s. In any case, this uniquely southern delicacy is a rare find in SLC. The fact that it works so well is a bonus. It is just one of the many comfortable, made-to-order dishes available at Bayleaf Café.
To experience chicken and waffles in all of its glory, I had to consider the context of the myth. I would have to try the dish in the middle of the night, after an evening of dancing and soul music. Anything else would be outside of the appropriate framework. Now I don’t pretend that this is how I always operate, but since Bayleaf seems to be steeped in tradition, I thought it appropriate to create the right context—especially for my first visit. Late one weekend, I headed over to the Urban Lounge to catch a set by the Vile Blue Shades. Not the most traditional soul music, but the best I could get on short notice. Once the dance floor cleared, I made my way to the café. Located on Main Street, Bayleaf is primarily a breakfast and lunch place. It’s open 24-hours on the weekends. So in the middle of the night, after an incredibly long day, I sat down with a glass of Blueberry Lemonade ($2.49) and had the kitchen fix me a plate of Chicken n Waffles ($8.99). The platter that arrived shortly thereafter made me wonder why these two foods are ever served separately. The boneless chicken breast was coated with a crunchy breading and fried to a moist and tender perfection. The single, crisp waffle accompaniment was spiked with just the right amount of cinnamon, slathered with butter and served with the perfect amount of syrup. Individually the foodstuffs were certainly above-average. When served on the same plate, I understood immediately why everyone had recommended it to me. It is better than the sum of its parts.
Subsequent visits to Bayleaf have left me equally impressed. Owners Seth and Haylen Radford take the time to create comfortable, hearty meals that inspire repeat visits. My breakfast trips have been filled with the familiar Chicken n Waffles and other dishes like the Trash Plate ($8.99)—a layered construction of thinly sliced hashbrown potatoes, cheese, sausage and bacon topped with two eggs. Everything on the breakfast menu looks fantastic to me, especially when paired with the café’s creamy, cheddar-rich Cheese Grits ($1.99). I have yet to try the Chicken Fried Steak and Eggs ($8.99), but if the quality of the country gravy is any indication of how good it will be, I’m sure I’ll love it.
Another dish I would highly recommend is the Meatloaf Platter ($8.99). The meal consists of a generous slice of bacon-wrapped meatloaf smothered in country gravy and served with your choice of two sides. The meatloaf recipe has its origins in a handwritten recipe book that belonged to Radford’s great-great grandmother. Seth’s only tweak is the addition of bacon. When choosing side dishes, it is hard to go wrong with the traditional buttery Mashed Potatoes. The Collard Greens, customized with sugar, bacon, vinegar and Thai chili peppers, also stand up well. My favorite has to be the Hoppin John. Conventional Hoppin John is served throughout the South as an entrée. It normally consists of black-eyed peas simmered with onions and a ham hock served over white rice. Bayleaf’s take on the dish eliminates the rice entirely, adds a few more vegetables and a little more spice to the mix. The result is perfectly tender beans served in a rich, brown broth. A fine addition to any meal.
As Bayleaf finds its footing downtown, I expect it will become a favorite spot to many. The recent addition of a beer and wine menu and the new weekday delivery option (11 am-2 pm) make it that much more of a destination. And with the glut of quality late-night dining downtown, I don’t see any reason to go anywhere else.