Sweet and savory

No-frills chicken and waffles at Tampa Luv.

Step into the Tampa Luv Chicken & Waffles and it’s clear what you’ll be getting. The building had been — at some point in its past — a fast casual joint of a different sort, maybe Chinese, by the look of it. Behind the nondescript counter lining one side of the nondescript dining room are a series of raised panels that once held pictures of menu items and a big-print list of specialties. Now, there are just four words, repeated over and over, clearly delineating Tampa Luv’s zeitgeist: Chicken and waffles! Chicken and fries!

This is specialization taken to its logical conclusion, no-frills to an extreme. Buy a meal, get a can of soda, the usual Coke products plus grape and orange. Eat in, and paper towels will absorb the grease and syrup from your hands as you dig into a meal served in Styrofoam containers — no need for plates, these to-go boxes easily multi-task. Tampa Luv is a bootstrap restaurant, with minimal start-up costs and slashed overhead.

You wouldn’t necessarily know that, however, when you bite into the chicken. Despite the limited menu options (chicken and waffles, chicken and fries, in case you forgot), Tampa Luv actually serves two different kinds of fried chicken — traditional wings, thighs and legs or breast meat tenders. Both arrive straight from the grease, more fresh than fast, and both share the same deep brown crust of a serious fry. The breading on the traditional fried chicken is brittle, glistening armor. Flakes of it shatter under your teeth and the skin slides as you bite, threatening to disrobe the meat underneath in one tear-away motion. It’s salty and has a significant hit of cayenne spice; both will have you reaching for your can of Sunkist. For everyone who thinks fried chicken is all about the breading, however, Tampa Luv may not be for you. It’s a tad overcooked, with notes of burned flour marring the otherwise perfectly seasoned crust.

The meat underneath, however, is another story entirely. The salt and spice from the outside permeates each piece, and the natural grease of the dark meat drips freely down your chin with every bite. With the thigh, strip the skin and enjoy; the covering on the leg and wing somehow survive cooking in better shape.

Nah. Just order Tampa Luv’s chicken fingers instead. They are glorious, each strip cut across the grain so that the meat tears apart easily under your teeth. In these, the breading is lighter, less flaky, which means it survives the oil in perfect shape and seems to carry more spice than the dark meat pieces. Tenders are also the perfect foil for Tampa Luv’s waffles. Not very thick, not very fluffy, these are a tinkered take on Belgium waffles, the batter infused with nutmeg and sweet spices that add a nice orange flow to the final product. The top is crisp, the bottom soft and the rest is dense and spongy enough to give it some structural integrity. That’s important, if you want to eat the best Tampa Luv has to offer.

Take one waffle, drizzle with syrup (not enough to make it soggy). Top with one or two chicken tenders. Dab chicken with your hot sauce of choice — I suggest Crystal, it’s sitting on the counter next to the ketchup. Enjoy your sweet and savory treat.

Stay away from the fries, however. Tampa Luv coats its spuds in an odd batter that comes out clumpy and burned, transforming perfectly fine potatoes into a fussy mess. Pre-formed and from a freezer bag would be better. The one positive part of the fries is that they are battered and fried to order, just like the chicken.

Tampa Luv also serves breakfast, of sorts, all day long. Order a chicken and waffle meal and you can add an egg — cooked anyway you like — to your mass of carbs and meat. There are also extras like pecans and chocolate chips you can toss on the waffle. And, considering that meals at Tampa Luv range from $4.99 to $10.99, an extra $.59 for an egg or $.49 for pecans doesn’t seem like overindulging. Well, economically, at least. Does an extra savory option balance out an extra sweet option? Guess I’ll just have to experiment.

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