The identity of the person who first thought to put fried chicken and waffles has been lost to history, but key events in the spread of this sweet and savory treat are known.
The dish first took hold in the United States in 1930s’ Harlem, where it was popular among musicians who finished their sets too late for dinner and too early for breakfast. Harlem native Herb Hudson brought it out to Los Angeles in the 1970s at his restaurant, Roscoe’s House of Chicken ‘N Waffles, and it exploded in popularity over the ensuing decades. Today, you can find it everywhere, from brewpubs and high-end restaurants to chains like KFC and Denny’s.
The popularity of fried chicken and waffles is easy to understand. It’s an entree and dessert in one dish, a filling start to the day and a hangover antidote for the end the night. Long as there’s some maple syrup and hot sauce nearby, it can be adjusted to each palate.
Albuquerque’s reining master of this culinary phenomenon is Frank Willis, owner of Frank’s Famous Chicken & Waffles. A Lobo basketball player in the 1990s, Willis started his cooking career by preparing and delivering soul food from his sister’s apartment. A brick-and-mortar restaurant on San Mateo and Copper followed in 2013. Willis moved to a bigger location a block south of Central a few years later. His facility with traditional soul food has won acclaim near and far. Last year, he was featured on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” where he showed host Guy Fieri how to make pecan and bacon waffles.
Frank’s new location on Washington, just south of Central, stands out in a neighborhood of small apartment buildings and an auto service station that appears to be closed. The barnlike structure has a red roof with a small cupola poking up in the middle. The parking lot is on the south side of the building.
A narrow patio holds a row of tables with umbrellas facing Washington. It’s a comfortable setting, the R&B music playing from the speakers above accompanied by the chattering of leaves from a couple of large trees that provide additional shade. Each table is stocked with the essential accessories for chicken and waffles: a bottle of hot sauce and a roll of paper towels.
The concise menu fits on one side of an embossed page. Almost everything is under $15.
Fried chicken is available as wings and tenders, with or without waffles. I ordered two tenders with one waffle ($7.50). It’s a terrific dish and a good value. The two pieces of white-meat chicken were moist and tender under a thick, crispy coating. Instead of the big thick Belgian-style waffle that turns up so often in this dish, Frank’s version comes with a thinner, more evenly textured and spongier waffle. It was ideal for sopping up syrup and sauce.
My friend ordered the Catfish Platter ($15.75), which came with two catfish fillets coated in cornmeal and fried. The mild, slightly sweet fish was flaky and moist, the coating well-seasoned.
Each platter comes with two sides chosen from a wide array of options. My friend had wanted to order the Candied Yams ($3.50), but it was out of stock, so he got the Fried Okra ($4.50) and Green Beans ($3.50). The okra nuggets, armored in the same cornmeal coating as the fish, were crisp and not greasy at all. They make a great snack when paired with the accompanying ranch sauce. The beans were served with finely diced potatoes in a soupy, salty liquid.
There are two sandwich options on the menu: po’boys and fried chicken. The Shrimp Po’ Boy’ ($10.75) looked pretty innocuous served in a sub roll, but the combination of the shrimp in cornmeal breading and the sauce delivered lots of spice, acid and brine, abetted by fresh tomatoes, crunchy slaw and house-made pickles. It stands with the best sandwiches in the city. You can swap the shrimp for catfish for the same price.
The only dish we had that missed the mark was the Cheesy Grits ($3.50). They were bland and not particularly cheesy.
Drink choices include soda and stout mason jars full of Kool-Aid, lemonade or sweet tea ($3.50). The latter had just the right balance of sweetness and black tea flavor.
There are two desserts: Peach Cobbler and Pecan Pie, both for $4.75. A scoop of vanilla ice cream is $1 extra.
The host and two servers were friendly and attentive, and our server was well-versed on the gluten-free options. The upshot is, the fried chicken is not gluten-free, but the stuff fried in cornmeal is gluten-friendly.
In just 10 years, Willis has gone from making food in an apartment kitchen to running a celebrated soul food restaurant. Eating there, it’s easy to see why.