Every basketball fan has a favorite Nate Robinson moment: There was that time, back in 2006, when Robinson (five foot nine) blocked a shot by Yao Ming (seven foot six), causing Yao to double over in shame. More recently, Robinson scored 23 points in the fourth quarter of a playoff game, single-handedly bringing the Chicago Bulls back from a 14-point deficit to win the game in triple overtime.
Robinson—Seattle native, Rainier Beach High School and University of Washington alum, and the NBA's only three-time slam-dunk champion—may never become one of the league's big stars. But he's beloved for his energetic personality and freak-of-nature athleticism, which have given fans some of the sport's most memorable moments.
And just like its namesake and co-owner, Nate's Wings & Waffles in Rainier Beach is always good, and sometimes unfuckwithably great. And even when it's not, you're willing to overlook it because you're rooting for the place to win.
Robinson grew up in the neighborhood and still spends the off-season in Seattle. His restaurant (which is co-owned by Darren McGill of local food truck Happy Grillmore), open since late September, is located next to the space where his mother ran a hair salon when he was a kid. And while Robinson isn't involved in the day-to-day operations of the restaurant, members of his close-knit family—including his mother, siblings, grandmother, and cousins—are.
The kitchen at Nate's, run by chef Tay Proctor-Mills Jr. (Robinson's cousin), does not mess around when it comes to the deep fryer. Wings (naked or breaded) come in half-pound, one-pound, or two-pound servings, making it just as easy to roll in at lunchtime and enjoy a reasonable individual portion as it is to throw down for dinner with a group of friends or family. To my surprise, I much preferred the breaded wings to their naked counterparts—proof that Proctor-Mills and crew really know what they're doing. The breading is simultaneously crackly and light, making it a superior shell for soaking up the house sauce in which the wings are tossed. There are seven sauces to choose from, and of the four I tried—chipotle BBQ, classic buffalo, coconut jalapeño lime, and honey sweet chili (there's also garlic ginger, lemon pepper, and teriyaki)—the classic buffalo was the standout, with just the right level of heat (wince-inducing, but not painfully so), a strong level of acidity, and a richness that coats the tongue and fingers, demanding you to lick them clean.
Proctor-Mills's culinary skill also shows up in the restaurant's cheese-based dishes. The mac 'n' cheese—penne bathed in a rich, satiny sauce clearly made from scratch—is wondrously smooth. It's far better than you'd expect for $4. (I recommend stirring in any leftover buffalo-wing sauce.) The Nate's Special sandwich (at $12, the restaurant's priciest dish), so named because it's Robinson's favorite item, might be the best thing on the menu: cheddar, Havarti, Brie, fried chicken strips, battered onion rings, barbecue sauce, and greens grilled in two well-buttered slices of Macrina sourdough. Yes, it's over the top (or, in the words of the woman behind the counter, "a big-ass sandwich"), but it's so well executed that it somehow seems civilized.
Unfortunately, Nate's game is less on point when it comes to its waffles. The waffle that came with the chicken waffle sliders ($10 for two, plus one side dish) was disappointingly dry, needing a dousing of maple syrup (which sits in bottles on every table). The dish was redeemed by moist breaded chicken strips, tangy and sweet maple aioli, and the side of raw kale salad, whose greens were finely chopped as to make eating them manageable, yet hardy enough to stand up to the aggressive chipotle-laced cream dressing.
While moister than the waffle with the chicken sliders, the savory waffle ($5)—studded with fried chicken bits, scallions, and cheese—was ultimately forgettable. Rather than being yeasty and rich, crispy on the outside and airy on the inside, Nate's waffles lack the complexity of flavor and texture to make them stand out. A little tweaking of the recipe could make a big difference.
One thing that isn't lacking at Nate's is the warm, familial vibe. On a recent Thursday afternoon, as lunch service was winding down, Robinson's mother and brother came in with a group of people. They joked with the staff and talked about plans for the restaurant's holiday decorations, all while proceeding to crush a large amount of food. Robinson's mom walked around, as boss ladies do, giving directions and offering her opinion on several matters.
The next evening, a young woman who I had seen hanging out the day before was working the register, keeping things flowing smoothly on a busy Friday night. "Happy Holidays" had been painted on the windows, a DJ was playing "Dial My Heart," families of diverse ethnicities were dining, and a line formed to the door. Two older black men chatted for a long time while pinballing throughout the restaurant, making way for running children, customers in line, and staff bringing food to tables. They showed no signs of ordering any food. It was clear that no one was ever going to ask them to leave.