Fried chicken and waffles at Firefly Tavern in Santa Cruz.
(Lookout Santa Cruz)
Food & Drink

Eaters Digest: Chicken and waffles at Firefly Tavern

Chicken and waffles has become a brunch staple in recent years, but ubiquity doesn’t always equal perfection. At downtown Santa Cruz newcomer Firefly Tavern, chef Jose Ortega does the dish justice — and not just on weekends, either.

Welcome to the Friday Eaters Digest column. Each week, Eaters Digest does three things for you. First, I’ll highlight a single dish or drink worth seeking out. Second, I’ll share the most important food and drink events in the area — and our growing list of area food guides on everything from farmers markets to the Corralitos wine trail. Third, I’ll catch you up on Lookout’s and other food stories you might have missed.

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Eat This: Chicken and waffles at Firefly Tavern

Chicken and waffles is a classic combo, but four or five years ago this brunch staple had A Moment in Santa Cruz when it broke free from the breakfast menu and was suddenly everywhere. Just as quickly, it was apparent that this deceptively simple dish — a piece of fried chicken on top of a waffle — is actually pretty hard to get right. It’s tricky to fry a piece of chicken so the outside reaches crackling perfection while the flesh stays moist and juicy; so is creating a waffle with a fluffy, tender texture that’s not too flabby.

At the time, I thought the best one in town was made by chef Santos Majano at The Kitchen at Discretion, the now-closed restaurant inside Discretion Brewing in Soquel (Sugo took over the space in 2021). Now, Firefly Tavern, which opened in April on Walnut Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz, might hold the crown, and it should come as no surprise — Jose Ortega, the chef at Firefly Tavern, was Majano’s sous-chef for many years.

Ortega’s fried chicken and waffles ($23) nails the non-negotiables: two pieces of crispy, golden-brown chicken and a flavorful buttermilk waffle. But it’s the details that make this dish memorable, almost celebratory. Rye infuses the maple syrup with a sweet earthiness; the honey-lavender butter is rich and floral; the dish is served with bites of fresh strawberries and blueberries.

The portions at Firefly Tavern are generous, but I had no problem polishing this meal off for lunch on a Thursday. That’s another great thing — you don’t have to wait until the weekend. Firefly Tavern’s brunch menu is served from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily alongside its regular menu.

110 Walnut Ave., Santa Cruz.

Best of the Weekend

Here, find a curated list of the best food and drink events in Santa Cruz County for the coming week. At the top, I share my picks of unmissable local happenings.

Felton’s downtown is enjoying a renaissance, with dozens of locally owned businesses lining Highway 9 as it runs through the small mountain town. On Saturday, enjoy the end of summer with a full day of food, live music and a pie-eating contest at the Beautify Felton Fundraiser and Pie Contest, which will raise money for downtown improvement projects. Food trucks Epoch Eats, Good Dogs, Tacos El Chuy and SC Eatery will be there, and beloved San Lorenzo Valley cover band Coffee Zombie Collective will play. You can also enter a pie in the contest for a chance to win a cash prize, or just pay to taste. The event is free and goes from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the parking lot behind Redwood Pizzeria.

Local cidery Santa Cruz Cider Company is turning 10 years old, and is hosting an all-day party at the Watsonville cidery to celebrate. Join in the fun with cider slushies, food from Chubby Tacos, beer from neighbor The Slough Brewing Co. and live music by the Apple City Slough Band. Santa Cruz Cider Co. will also release Decennium, a special 10-year anniversary cider made from all local apples, pears and quince, with commemorative glassware.

Saturday, Aug. 12

Sunday, Aug. 13

Monday, Aug. 14

Thursday, Aug. 17

Can’t Miss City Guides

News from the Week

ICYMI — Here are the food news stories from Lookout that you might have missed, plus important news from beyond our borders picked by yours truly.

Humble Sea Tavern in Felton abruptly closes its doors (Lookout)
Lily Beli on Food: The latest on The Midway (Lookout)
Goodbye hotdogs, hello vegan chana masala: California’s school lunches are going gourmet (CalMatters)

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