Chicken and waffles Credit: Matt Schwerin

Would you trust the culinary judgment of a restaurateur who has gone on record admitting he won’t perform oral sex on his partner?
What about one who thinks it’s a good idea to batter and deep-fry lobster, a shellfish as delicate and unforgiving as an orchid?

I have no idea how encompassing the Venn diagram is that includes both those aesthetic parameters, but evidently it’s large enough to include DJ Khaled—”father, mogul, icon”—who’s attached to a Miami restaurant minichain called, unironically, the Licking, the name a redraft of the original, Finga Licking, which first opened in Miami Gardens in 2015.

Now Khaled and his partners, which include fellow Florida impresario Elric “E-Class” Prince and, locally, sports agent and coach Lenny “Coffey” Weston, have brought the sixth Licking to the west side, where the deep-fried lobster and other signature items, along with an early mass of Instagram-documented celebrities (though apparently not Khaled), have drawn a crush of long lines in its early days.

It’s just over half a mile east of MacArthur’s, the legendary soul-food cafeteria and neighborhood anchor that in its 22-year history has entertained its own share of the famous and the patient-enough-to-wait. But there’s room for more than one restaurant on this stretch of Madison in South Austin—a lot more actually—where both the stalwart and the newcomer are outnumbered by fast-food joints.

With its deep-fried-dominant menu, the Licking, which is described as “Miami-style” soul food, tilts in that direction, though pretty much anything you can order fried you can also order grilled—just not the conch, which they were out of anyway on the afternoon I visited with Reader interns Aaron Allen and Andrea Michelson. (I keep missing the conch everywhere I go.)

Opinions diverged among the three of us, but I think we’re almost together as regards the fried lobster, which arrives in lightly battered chunks nestled within an upturned lobster tail. Whether they’d ultimately been pulled from the deep separately or carved from a single creature, I couldn’t tell. I was just happy they weren’t overcooked—at least not rubberized—though the fryer erases any recognizably lobsterlike characteristics the creature (creatures?) might have had when it once crept freely on the floor of the Humboldt Park Lagoon.

There’s an alluring fried chicken combo that pairs four wedges of powdered-sugar-dusted red velvet waffle with four full, double-jointed wings that come from the fry basket in far better shape than the lobster—crunchy, juicy, still with some life to them. The waffles? They make for a nice photo.

Grilled stuff varies as well; a half dozen shrimp tossed with peppers were decently snappy if outsized by their $15.99 price tag, but the slices of strip steak and onions arrayed across a swamp of gummy, saucy linguine alfredo were gnarly and tough beyond edibility.
What jumps out most at the Licking aren’t the dinners but a few of the humble sides, like the collard greens, tart and bottomlessly flavored with smoked turkey, or candied yams, which dissolve into a creamy sweetness that practically disappears on the tongue. As a group we were less enthralled by warmed-over mac and cheese and dried-out rice and pigeon peas.

But nothing jumps out more at the Licking than the Famous Mystery Drink, a towering, layered, rainbow-colored virgin fruit juice and lemonade cocktail that tastes like a swallow of assorted Jolly Ranchers (which, in Florida, unlike here, can be ordered spiked). Should’ve ordered two. My companions drained a large without much help from me.

If it continues to draw the jocks and celebrities and subsequent crowds (not to mention jobs), the Licking will be a benefit to the neighborhood—and could be elsewhere too (the Tribune reports that the owners are scouting a south-side location). But even beyond the hit-or-miss execution, a lot more could be done to ensure a MacArthur’s-style longevity. The two unmarked tinted-glass side entrances give no indication which one leads to the takeaway counter and which to the separate dining room—where there’s a large one-way glass window. Despite the flat-screen TVs, spacious scarlet booths, and eyeball-scattering wallpaper scheme, this makes it feel like you’re eating in an interrogation room.

It’s actually the restaurant’s VIP room, and even if you’re hitting the Licking on a quiet afternoon, with your eyes closed you might still imagine DJ Khaled himself behind the mirrored glass, plucking a live lobster out of a tank just for you.  v