Match made in heaven

Oni’s Chicken & Waffles

5015 Stockton Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95820

Restaurants on Stockton Boulevard are often fairly no-frills operations, and Oni’s Chicken & Waffles is no exception. The décor is unremarkable: water-stained ceiling tiles, black-backed banquettes, a sign requesting that you end your cell-phone call before ordering, and—well, maybe this is remarkable—no TV.

As for the menu, the name of the restaurant pretty much says it all. There is chicken, in this case crisp-fried, surprisingly delicate wings, and there are waffles. And, oh yeah, sides: mac and cheese, candied yams, collard greens, green beans, corn. You can go for breakfast, for lunch or for dinner, and that’s still pretty much the menu, though at breakfast you can get eggs, and at other services you can get red beans and rice or fish and grits—which I totally want to go back for. I don’t run across grits every day.

On this visit, however, chicken and waffles seemed obligatory; I find that generally, if a restaurant puts the title of a dish in its very name, it behooves you to order that dish. I started off with a glass of iced tea, which did not give me very high hopes. It was supersweet, of which I am not a fan, but I could have forgiven that if it hadn’t also tasted strongly of some kind of artificial lemon flavor. (Most of the other drinks available are in cans or bottles: Snapple, sodas and so on.)

Things perked up, however, when the chicken and waffles arrived—at a fairly leisurely but not overly slow pace. The place seemed like a one-woman show, at least when we were there for an admittedly not-very-busy lunch service; the same person was doing the cooking and the serving, competently in both cases. You can watch the waffle irons in action, as they’re right up front and look appropriately weathered. The waffles come out big and flat (as opposed to deeply hatch-marked Belgian-style types), faintly sweet and with a nutmeggy spice flavor that I think may actually have been mace (which is closely related to nutmeg). Crisply browned at the edges, just like the fried chicken itself, the waffles barely needed syrup or the cup of melted butter the server/cook brought out to accompany them—which is not to say I didn’t deploy both, because, well, syrup and butter are good. They also offer strawberry syrup and butter pecan syrup—those seemed like overkill at lunch, but if I go back for breakfast, I’m totally trying them.

The chicken wings, three per order, had a sparing, almost lacy flour-based breading clinging to the flavorful skin, and they were tender inside with that distinctive, slippery, juicy fried-chicken quality. Of course, the highly gnaw-able wing tips didn’t have that; they were all about the fry, which was peppery but not overwhelming. Wings are the only game here, and I’d kind of like to taste what they’d do with a nice juicy thigh or a drumstick, but the wings left me pretty happy.

So that’s the chicken and waffles. What, then, of the sides? My friend actually made a meal of just sides and a waffle, ordering the mac and cheese, on which Oni’s bases a claim to fame. It is good, indeed, studded with melty deposits of real cheese, plenty of cheddar flavor and creamy sauce around the soft elbow macaroni. I was less taken with the candied yams, which were one-dimensionally sweet, but I have to admit that candied yams are not really my cup of tea. If you like the Thanksgiving side dish with the marshmallows, you’ll probably like this marshmallowless but brown-sugar-rich version.

I was more enamored of the slightly tangy collard greens, fine-chopped and rich in pot liquor. These were cooked to softness but retained their green color, a modestly fresh flavor and a mild bite, but not too much bitterness. Similarly, the soft, well-cooked, and juicy red beans and rice had a nice vinegary tang to them, and shreds of tender meat flavoring them. My only complaint about them was the exceptionally dull rice itself; the beans tasted delicious, but too many restaurants now seem to be all over the converted-type rice, which lacks body and rice flavor.

We ended the meal with a dish of peach cobbler (pecan pie and pound cake are also available), which was a bit of a disappointment: too sweet, with tons of doughy, gummy, sugar-sticky topping with a strong hint of clove spicing was the cement around not enough peaches—and they seemed to be canned at that. I know there’s a place in the world for canned peaches, and I like them just fine in many cases, but I had eaten a really lovely fresh, ripe peach at breakfast, and the memory of it made the too-firm, sugary wedges pale in comparison. That minor problem, though, would be obviated by going for breakfast—perhaps the best time for chicken and waffles, especially if you are nursing a mild hangover. Stick to the eponymous basics at Oni’s, and it will do right by you.