Underbelly sous chef Lyle Bento was pretty mad when a colleague showed him the Huffington Post headline that reads "Popeyes Debuts Chicken Waffle Tenders, World Wonders Why No One Else Thought Of That Already." After all, Bento had thought of that very thing back in 2011 when he was the chef for food truck The Modular.
"When I started on The Modular, we (Bento and Goro & Gun co-owner Joshua Martinez) wanted to have fun," Bento tells CultureMap. "A lot of chefs were unemployed. I started challenging people to cooking competitions. (We did) a ramen battle with Jason Hauck (then of Soma). We invited (ex-Stella Sola chef) Justin Bayse for a wing battle."
Needless to say, Bento sold out of 300 wings in an hour and won the competition.
As was typical for a food truck that served everything from fried shrimp sandwiches to lobster risotto, Bento was still finalizing his plans to defeat Bayse.
"The night before, we were coming up with stuff on the fly," he says. "Somebody said something about wings and waffles. I read about Wylie Dufresne and how he (uses) English muffin crumbs for his fried hollandaise."
Inspiration struck: Take chicken wings and bread them with pulverized Eggo waffles. "I can't make waffles as good as Eggo can . . . (they) are this iconic thing that everybody knows" Bento says. Those waffles gave Bento the flavor he wanted. He dehydrated them in an oven and pulverized them in a food processor to turn them into breading.
To complement the wings, he invented Maple Death sauce: Maple syrup, Louisiana hot sauce and butter.
Needless to say, Bento sold out of 300 wings in an hour and won the competition. Even then, Bento knew he was onto something. "(Underbelly chef) Chris (Shepherd) told me, 'Take that recipe and put it in your pocket.' "
The chicken and waffle wings reappeared in October 2011 at the Houston Press's Wingtober competition. Bento donned a chicken suit for the occasion and defeated reigning wing champion Jonathan Jones on his home turf.
With all that in mind, Bento and I went to the Popeyes at Shepherd and 11th to sample the chicken waffle tenders. "I like the batter. I like the crunch. I just don't get waffle," Bento says after taking a couple bites. "If someone put this in my mouth, I would not say 'waffle.' It needs sauce."
Bento thinks the problem is the batter; he says he tried to create one, but it didn't work as well as the Eggos. Not that a global chain like Popeyes would go to the trouble of using Eggo waffles as breading, but the result is a pale imitation of Bento's award-winning creation.
Will the original ever return? "I tried to talk Josh into putting them on the menu at Goro & Gun, but he won't do it," Bento says.
Bento brought them back recently when he revived The Modular for a night at Goro & Gun. Maybe if Houstonians clamor for the real thing, he'll do it again.