Restaurant news over the past year has been a drumbeat of gloom and doom, a seemingly endless string of stories about layoffs and closures.
But the receding pandemic has revealed some good news concerning the local dining scene. Several promising restaurants opened in the last year, and with the weather warming and life returning to normal, it’s a good time to check them out.
I’m not alone in that sentiment, judging by the scene during a recent weekday lunch hour at Ms. Gennie’s House of Chicken, a recent arrival to the West Downtown area. The parking lot, empty when I arrived, was almost full an hour later.
The turnout reflects the good buzz Ms. Gennie’s has generated since it opened in November on a relatively quiet stretch of Lomas next to Palms Trading Co. It’s only a few minutes’ drive from both interstates.
The owners have made a few tweaks to the building that formerly housed a Monroe’s New Mexican, adding corrugated metal awnings over the windows and along the facing of the counter to make the surroundings more befitting of its Southern-style cuisine. There’s a small parking lot out front and a makeshift patio adjacent to the entrance with a couple of sets of tables and chairs.
Just inside the door, a placard bears the likeness of Ms. Gennie herself, Texas-born Genevieve Mayfield-Vela, the restaurant’s guiding spirit. The interior is bright, clean and spacious, with two dining rooms: one by the counter, the other looking out on Lomas. The staff was masked when I visited, and half of the tables were closed off for social distancing. After you order at the counter, you get a number, and the food is brought out to you. My order came out in about 15 minutes.
With a name like House of Chicken, you would expect, well, chicken, and you get it here in family-style meals and smaller plates. The menu also includes catfish, smoked sausage and chicken-fried steak.
Each meal starts with a complimentary basket of outstanding homemade tortilla chips. The thick, rippled chips were paired with an emerald-green jalapeño salsa that imparted more of a tingle than a burn.
Fried chicken plates are available in two or four pieces and come with two sides, a choice of bread and gravy or chile sauce. My two-piece white chicken meat plate ($12.50) actually arrived with three pieces: a breast and two wings, although the wings had so little meat on them they felt incidental. The breast, however, was moist and flavorful, the fried coating crackling crisp, well-seasoned and not at all greasy. The green chile sauce, served on the side in a small cup, was blazing hot and worked better as a dip than a pour-over.
The exemplary frying techniques were also evident in the chicken-fried steak ($10.50), a slab of tenderized beef about the size of a large hamburger patty. Ms. Gennie’s version was a successful interpretation of the old diner standby, with a craggy, crisp coating that stayed attacked to the thin steak and offered a crunchy counterpoint to the peppery white gravy.
My sides included a healthy portion of fire-roasted corn, juicy, sweet and blackened at the edges, that paired beautifully with the white gravy. Gennie’s beans, pinto beans set in a thick, smoky sauce, were also terrific, as was a modest-sized block of cornbread that was light and a little sweet under a paper-thin, crisp top layer.
Desserts include pie, cake and cobbler. The apple cobbler ($5) was like a big, gooey pie squeezed into a bowl. It was easily enough for two people. The sweet tea ($2.25) was nicely done, with ample black tea flavor.
Service was exceptional. The person at the counter was amiable and helpful, and three people checked on me during the meal.
With its high-quality food and friendly atmosphere, Ms. Gennie’s is the kind of place where you can imagine yourself becoming a regular. It offers further evidence of the local restaurant scene’s resiliency.