The Liège waffle (gaufre Liège) is unlike any other waffle on earth. Indigenous to Belgium, they're denser and sweeter than their ubiquitous cousin -- the fluffy Brussels-style waffle that pops up at every Mother's Day brunch at the local Hilton hotel. Liège dough (not batter) is yeasty and filled with chunks of Belgian pearl sugar, and the outside is seared into a sweet caramelized crust that can only be accomplished with a very expensive European cast-iron waffle-maker (we're talking $7-10K). This crunchy exterior should be able to take on piles of whipped cream, ice cream and fresh fruit without getting soggy. But without all that sugary noise, they're also delicious as-is, little hand-held waffle snacks you can tote around at a farmers market or outdoor concert -- because of their density and outer shell, they're sturdy enough to hold. A popular street food in city of Liège, where it got its name, this unique waffle is slowly making its way into Los Angeles.
Like crepes, you can find both sweet and savory versions of the waffle around town. Sweet versions can range from mixed berries to peanut butter and banana, and savory can swing from Gruyère and Black Forest ham to smoked bacon and poached eggs. Either way you choose, you must try one with speculoos, a Belgian spread of crushed biscoff cookies (Christmas cookies with ginger notes), which hit shelves for the first time just a few years back in 2007. Speculoos is lighter than Nutella, easier on the throat than peanut butter, and has a very subtle crunch. And dig this -- you can now buy it at Trader Joe's under the guise "Cookie Butter."
Syrup is a place to go if you are seriously jonesing for sugar -- or are an emancipated five-year-old with a big ball of cash. They have the largest Liège menu in the city, with dough options that include orange cranberry twist, double chocolate, cinnamon apple, and Capuccino cake, to name but a few. You start there, then you can build your own sugar mound, mixing and matching toppings with unique ice cream flavors like jasmine and dulce de leche. Or you can opt for their "Waffle Favorites," which include the Chocolate Mudslide: a Chocolate Decadence waffle, chocolate raspberry mousse ice cream, fresh strawberries, chocolate shavings and Ghirardelli chocolate sauce. Though these will certainly placate a throbbing sweet tooth, it's important to use discretion when chowing down -- your blood-sugar levels may be high enough to warrant a legitimate DUI. But if you want to sidestep the frills (and the handcuffs), you can always go for the traditional glazed Liège, accented by only a light dust of powdered sugar -- authentic, delicious and satisfying. 611 S Spring St., Los Angeles; 213-488-5136.
You won't find subtly anywhere near the Waffles de Liège food truck, but their streety vibe does great justice to the true spirit of the Liège. What makes their waffles stand out is the whopping scoop of ice cream that crowns each creation, courtesy of Fosselman's Ice Cream Company in Alhambra. We inspected their iron, and it is up to code -- the requisite 40-pounder necessary to do the job right and make a true Liège. The kids behind the wheel admitted that they tried several cheaper irons without achieving the desired result, so they finally caved and bought a European specimen. Our favorites include the Liège Waffle Special with caramel and chocolate sauce, and the Speculoos Special, that comes with freshly sliced bananas. Location varies; 626-825-2103.
2. Liège Waffle Company
Patrick Pirson, owner of the Liège Waffle Company, hails from Belgium, though you wouldn't know it. He has no accent and appears completely American, save for his expert knowledge of how to authentically serve up a Liège waffle. You can spot him at the Mar Vista farmers market on Sundays -- in a tent that advertises Pommes Frites -- flipping his Belgian iron with razor-sharp focus and masterful finesse. It's quite the sight, sort of reminiscent of Tom Cruise's theatrics in Cocktail, but Pirson isn't doing anything for show. The product of his labor is exactly what a Liège should be: dense, subtly sweet, and with that classic caramelized shell. He makes the dough himself, unlike many who use frozen versions, and insists this is the only way to do it, either in Mar Vista or in Belgium. These waffles are tiny -- six per order, and he serves them simply, with just chocolate or caramel sauce as topping options. Grand View at Venice Boulevard, Mar Vista; 626-201-1742.
1. Shaky Alibi
It's no surprise that Shaky Alibi's waffles are born from a recipe dating back to 1860. And it's no surprise that chef and own R.J. Milano got that recipe from his Belgian great-grandmother, whose memory lives on through Milano's successful cafe on Beverly. Milano exudes such passion for not only the Liège waffle but for the principal of sticking to one thing and doing it perfectly, authentically, and without compromise. His waffles speak to the benefit of this philosophy; they are stellar -- tender despite their sweet density, and they have brought him a loyal customer base that sometimes travels more than 50 miles just to take a bite.
Though Milano adheres religiously to the old-world recipe and cooking methodology (it takes a day and a half to make one batch of dough), he allows room for one little innovation -- the addition of cinnamon. According to the chef, American palates have grown so accustomed to the flavor of cinnamon in pastries and baked goods, they prefer its essence to its absence, albeit it subtle and perhaps unrecognizable. We agree; his waffles have the greatest depth and flavor of all on the list. Enjoy them straight from the iron or with the addition of imported Belgian spreads including Speculoos, milk and dark chocolate, hazelnut, and chocolate toffee, along with ice cream, fresh fruit, nuts and a wide variety of savory offerings. 7401 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; 323-938-5282.
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Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer and a pastry cook at Lucques. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.