I have been called a waffle obsessive a time or two, and I have to admit that the critics may have a point. My truck practically drives itself to the Little Saigon bakery Van’s for the fragrant pandan waffles made to order, and even before Google Maps I knew precisely how far it was from my driveway to the bacon waffles with walnut butter at Morning Glory, in Ashland, Oregon, which are among the finest waffles in the world. (The distance is 671 miles and 351 feet, if you’re keeping score.) My old friend Jeff had a collection of antique waffle irons whose number went far into the three figures, and even he tended to get a haunted look in his eye ten minutes into a discussion of the malted waffles I once had in northern Kentucky or the feather-light waffles that Marion Cunningham dreamed up for the old Bridge Café in Berkeley. But the first time I tasted the yeasted cornmeal waffles at Brown Sugar Kitchen, an evolved soul food restaurant in West Oakland, it was almost as if I had never tasted a waffle at all. Because Brown Sugar’s waffles, so violently risen that it is as if the batter had tried to lift itself from the devilishly hot waffle iron toward the firmament, are so light and so crisp that they are almost a different species, waffles wrenched into the next state in their development.
Brown Sugar Kitchen is a restaurant worth visiting in any event. It may be open only for breakfast and lunch, but its precision-engineered hominess fits the tone of the neighborhood, a multiracial district of modest older homes and architected new condominiums, and if there is a slight smack of gentrification—chef Tanya Holland, trained at La Varenne, was briefly a star on the Food Network—it is the kind of relaxed gentrification that anybody should welcome. The French-press coffee is from Blue Bottle, the cult Bay Area roaster, the jam is from Blue Chair, and the bacon is the organic stuff from Niman Ranch. The pan-fried chicken, soaked overnight in spice-infused buttermilk, may well be the best fried chicken in California, impossibly juicy, stained Tabasco-scarlet beneath its crackly crust, flecked with pungent fragments of fresh herbs. The cheese grits with shrimp would be renowned even in South Carolina.
But when I am sitting at home 400 miles away, gazing wistfully out at the lemon and avocado trees in the yard, it is those yeasted waffles I am dreaming of, moistened perhaps with a few drops of apple cider boiled down to syrup. If the reverie comes early enough I can probably blast up to Oakland before the restaurant closes at three.
Brown Sugar Kitchen 2534 Mandela Pkwy., Oakland (brownsugarkitchen.com; 510-839-SOUL)