Waffles are arguably the least interesting of J. Mack's projects. Born James McClendon in 1967, Mack became the founding MC of the U-Krew: a zebra-suited rap-R&B quintet. Their 1990 single "If U Were Mine" became the highest-charting Billboard single ever by a Portland hip-hop group, reaching No. 24. Three years ago, he formed the duo Big Dub & J. Mack to record two albums about medical marijuana, Heavily Medicated and the upcoming Still Medicated. (The opening lyrics of "Pass the Legislation" are representatively blunt: "President Obama/ legalize marijuana.") Big Dub, who likes to recount his cohort's résumé, says J. Mack was also known as "the strip-club king of Portlandâ for his column in Exotic magazine.
But J. Mack can now be found less often in front of a mic or a rack than a waffle iron, pouring the batter for the headliner at Mack & Dub's Excellent Chicken & Waffles. The self-promotion of that adjective is, if anything, underselling the plate. This is the best soul food on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. If it doesn't quite equal what the church folk are dishing up at Po'Shines Cafe De La Soul in Kenton, it makes up for it with party atmosphere, complete with a sexy Isley Brothers soundtrack, zebra-striped bowls, and a turntable and stage for weekend late-night sets.
First-time customers to the three-room shop are given a grand verbal tour of the menu. That riff finishes with, "But I bet I know why you're here: You want chicken and waffles." The correct answer is yes, though you still have options—breast, thigh, drumstick or strips. (Depending on quantity, orders range from $5 to $12.) Even then, the food has a freestyle quality to it: While the Belgian-style waffles are perfectly consistent, the chicken strips are sometimes lightly fried and other times grilled, depending on what J. Mack has in the smoker outside. (Strips are what the house suggests, and I'd agree: They're served in a huge stack, but each is bite-sized enough to pair with the cake.) This improvised vibe only adds to the meal, which I've now had three times within a week. The waffles are positively magnetic: fluffy, thick and bathed in butter and powdered sugar.
There is a larger menu, worth exploring if for some perverse reason you tire of chicken and waffles. Among the sides ($3-$5), I favor the baked beans, a bowl packed with enough ground turkey and peppers that it's more like a sweet chili.
The basa sandwich ($9) is a fried catfish cut, the size of a whole fish, folded with tomato and tartar sauce inside a hoagie bun that's also been briefly seared in the waffle iron. The sloppy soul sandwich ($9) is the only letdown, if a minor one: A take on the sloppy joe made with pulled chicken (in a nod to halal diets, there's no pork served at Mack & Dub's), it's got a great barbecue sauce but a generic American cheese slice melted on top. Even that, however, is part of the joy in eating at a place that isn't treating calorie-rich home cooking as a smirky cart indulgence or something to be gussied up into nearly fine dining, but as a shout-out to proud tradition.
I'll go further: Mack & Dub's Excellent Chicken & Waffles (in tandem with Mack & Dub's Breakfast Club two blocks away) finally takes back the street from the ersatz Southern cuisine at the two Popeyes franchises that inspired the slightly condescending neighborhood nickname Be-Pop. This is something better, a medicine to cure the munchies. This is a real waffle house.
- Order this: Chicken strips and two waffles ($10).
- Best deal: Baked beans ($3).
- Iâll pass: Puff, puff. But no, seriously, Iâll eat anything here.
EAT: Mack & Dub's Excellent Chicken & Waffles, 3601 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 933-7662, mackanddub.com. 11 am-9 pm Monday-Friday, 10 am-9 pm Saturday, 10 am-6 pm Sunday. $$ Moderate.