Flavor: Soulful Southern standards
Ambiance: If Oxford American magazine ever opened a restaurant, it would probably feel—and sound—something like this one.
Where: 77-B Biltmore Ave.
Hours: Tue-Sun, 4 p.m.-2 a.m.
At first glance, Mo Daddy’s doesn’t look like a particularly local place—or at least not the sort that oozes with authentic Appalachian culture. The folk renderings of bluesmen adorning the walls and the soulful, meaty menu seem to have grown from loamy Delta soil, not Smoky Mountain dirt.
But owner John Atwater claims there’s a deep kinship between the blues culture he’s set out to celebrate and the local-food movement that makes his latest culinary endeavor uniquely Ashevillean. (Atwater, who also runs the ever-popular Mamacita’s next door, recently opened Mo Daddy’s as a pub/bar/music club).
“It’s all about using what you have on hand,” Atwater says, explaining why he decided to plunk down a juke joint on Biltmore Avenue. “Chicken and waffles is a dish blues musicians ate because it’s what they could get. … We’re serving anything yummy we can find at the farmer’s market.”
The make-do aesthetic that rules rural foodways across the South—usually with terrifically delicious results—is nowhere more apparent than the restaurant’s signature chicken-and-waffles plate, a supremely good rendition of the pairing most folks associate with Roscoe’s, the revered Los Angeles institution that’s merited mentions in Snoop Dogg’s rhymes and Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown.
“It seems like a novelty item,” Atwater admits. “A lot of people scratch their heads like, ‘What?’”
Of course, anyone who’s ever taken their chicken with a honey-laden biscuit can attest there’s nothing strange about serving a thick breast of fried chicken alongside—or even atop—a fluffy Belgian waffle, soggy with syrup. It’s an intensely satisfying match.
Apparently, Mo Daddy’s marks chicken-and-waffles’ Asheville debut. But the dish is well-known in urban areas with vibrant African-American communities, having entered the soul-food canon during the waning years of the Harlem Renaissance. Wells Supper Club, the 133rd Street institution where Nat King Cole held his wedding reception, boasted that it first birthed the sweet-and-savory coupling in 1938.
Fried-chicken authority John T. Edge, author of Fried Chicken: An American Story (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2004), is skeptical of the claim. “Wells Supper Club was, more than likely, just the Roscoe’s of another time, a place that popularized a dish already ensconced in the folk repertoire,” Edge writes. He suspects that chicken and waffles have been sharing plates since Thomas Jefferson spirited home a French waffle iron in his luggage, jumpstarting an American waffle craze.
If you’re keen on sorting out the dish’s origins, there’s no better fuel for your discourse than Mo Daddy’s version, which features golden-fried chicken snuggled against light, cakey waffle quarters. Amber-hued ancho honey is provided for dunking or drowning—eater’s choice. The plate is $7 of pure pleasure.
Most customers opt for white meat, Atwater says. Although Edge—himself a dark-meat fan—defends white meat as the choice of chicken-and-waffles purists (it’s easier to spear with a hunk of waffle), the dark meat is far richer and juicier. The white meat suffers more obviously from being slightly overdone.
“The recipe’s a challenge,” Atwater sighs. “At home, I make it in a cast-iron skillet, and here, we deep fry the whole thing, so it browns a little more than I’d like.”
The chicken’s slightly smoky, paprika-staccatoed crust is lovely, and immediately familiar to devotees of Atwater’s fried-fish tacos at Mamacita’s.
“We pulse the corn chips from the bottom of the bag that we can’t use,” explains Atwater, invoking the prevailing “use what you’ve got” philosophy of cooking. “We discovered that by accident. Even the homeless people wouldn’t take them. But a lot of people use corn flakes on their fried chicken, so it works pretty well, but it’s more firm.”
Although entrée specials occasionally surface at Mo Daddy’s—I was served an off-puttingly greasy short rib, apparently portioned for a caveman, which Atwater described as the “John Holmes of short ribs”—the remainder of the regular menu is devoted to gussied-up pub grub, including sandwiches, burgers and messy, salty, deviously good appetizers.
“I definitely want it to feel like a joint in here, but I want really good food,” Atwater says, recalling jukes he’s visited where regulars linger over coffee and catfish. “Bar food doesn’t have to be mediocre.”
The appetizers are particularly playful, with the dark meat salvaged from the countless orders for white-meat chicken dinners appearing in the guise of orange chipotle wings. Atwater riffs on the same theme with his panko-fried shrimp, plated with an orange-coconut hot sauce.
But of all the items in the appetizer column, he’s proudest of the eminently shareable beer-cheese fondue, a cauldron of goo served with cubes of bread from Fairview baking phenom Francois Manavit. It’s best enjoyed with a counterbalancing bourbon from Mo Daddy’s Southern-tinged bar menu, which includes Georgia Moon, Eagle Rare and Blantons among its whiskey offerings.
“We have a traditional mint julep, but we’re also making some funky drinks,” says bar manager Chris Lawrence, citing a bourbon-peach smash and a corn-whiskey martini garnished with pickled okra. “We’re planning on infusing corn whiskey with blueberries and peaches.”
Lawrence brings a craftsman’s standards to the bar, making his own grenadine and squeezing fresh juices for cocktails. The kitchen exercises the same care with its burgers, which are remarkably good. Atwater, long pained by the difficulty of finding a decent burger in downtown Asheville, is serving burgers made from three types of beef: mass-market Black Angus, grass-fed Angus and South Poll from Hickory Nut Gap and Kobe. The burgers are accompanied by house-made, hand-cut French fries. “It’s a labor of love,” Atwater says of the labor-intensive process.
Perhaps the best burger preparation on the menu is the plate of zingy little sliders, capped with mounds of carmelized Vidalia onions, locally made Lusty Monk mustard and bacon. “We found the thickest cut of bacon we could possibly get,” Atwater says. “It’s better than a candy bar.”
Indeed. The dish sums up Mo Daddy’s smart, pan-Southern perspective, which gives the informal eatery a definite college-town feel: The restaurant could easily be transplanted to Oxford, Athens or Chapel Hill.
“A lot of people have told me it seems like Memphis or New Orleans in here,” Atwater says. “Whatever it is, I hope it becomes Asheville.”