If one measure of success is having the wherewithal to pursue those things you love most, Frank Willis has led a very successful life. A towering skyscraper of a man, Frank has had four great loves in his life: family, basketball, music and chicken and waffles. They’ve been his passions and his raisons d’être. Maybe that’s why he’s done them all well.
You might remember Frank Willis as a heavily coveted recruit who played basketball for the University of New Mexico Lobos, then the only game in town. At 6’8” and 260 pounds, he was a physical presence down on the post, helping the Lobos win the Western Athletic Conference championship in 1994. Knee injuries kept him from achieving the promise he showed as a high school senior in Los Angeles. After his playing days ended, Frank remained in Albuquerque where he pined for the soul food—especially chicken and waffles–so readily available in the City of Angels. When he couldn’t find the foods he coveted, he began preparing them himself.
While he cites his mother, grandmother and aunt as formative influences on his cooking, Frank also waxes nostalgic about his frequent visits to Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles, a beloved Los Angeles soul food institution. As he had done in honing his basketball skills, he worked relentlessly on his own recipes until he had perfected them to his exacting standards. In January, 2013, he took his concept to the streets—literally, launching a food delivery business featuring soul food. It was such a hit that within nine months, he opened a brick-and-mortar soul food restaurant, Frank’s Famous Chicken & Waffles. In late Spring, 2019, Frank’s relocated to a more capacious, bright and airy location on Washington Street just before it meets up with Zuni. The new location was previously home to the TFK Smokehouse and before that to Kasey’s Restaurant & Pub.
Now, Frank’s may not have been famous when it first opened, but it quickly garnered a reputation as a purveyor of peerless soul food. In 2015, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded the quickly burgeoning business a Hot Plate Award for the chicken and waffles the Duke City can’t live without. In the 2017 “best of the city” poll, the magazine’s readers declared Frank’s as the best soul food eatery in the metropolitan area. Accolades, awards and glowing media tributes share space on the walls at Frank’s with another of his four loves, music.
While you’re enjoying soul food at Frank’s, it’s only fitting that you’re surrounded by the dulcet tones and sensual stylings of sweet, soothing soul music from such stalwarts as Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross. Album sleeves and cassettes festoon the walls along with an electric guitar and a painting of Prince. There are a few vestiges of Frank’s playing days as a Lobo framed on the wall near the bar. A dog-friendly patio provides nice shade.
Frank’s greatest love, of course, is his family. His restaurant is the quintessential family owned and operated restaurant. Family members–sister, daughter, mother–all have a hand in day-to-day operation. Frank himself is the most visible face of the restaurant. He’s understandably proud of his business. When my friend Sr. Plata and I visited for the first time in June, 2018, he asked how we’d heard about Frank’s. I replied “everyone’s heard about Frank’s. It just took us too long to get here.” We joked about Sr. Plata having been from Los Angeles but never having been to Roscoe’s.
Frank’s menu is so much more than chicken and waffles though if that sweet and savory combination is what you’re jonesing for, a number of plates are available to sate your appetite. And, if you’re like this indolent eater and prefer not to have to work around chicken bones, there are boneless options. The most prolific offering on the menu is the Temptations Platter, a caloric overachiever showcasing wings smothered with Muddy Waters gravy served with yams, mac n’ cheese, greens and corn bread. You can also put some South in your mouth with grits prepared several ways, including the “Kiss My Grits Bowl” (a heaping bowl topped with cheese, eggs and your choice of bacon, sausage or hot links). Two po’ boy sandwiches—your choice of catfish or shrimp—are available for the sandwich lovers among us. You can also enjoy a catfish platter and a plethora of sides such as smoked turkey greens, candied yams and jazzy red beans and rice.
13 June 2018: During our inaugural visit, only my friend Sr. Plata’s eyes were larger than his order of twelve wings and two waffles. He was awestruck at just how much meat a dozen wings could have, obviously figuring on some scrawny pieces. Not only did he get a serious work-out hefting that immense platter of poultry, he ate enough to keep him sated until at least dinnertime. It’s a good thing the two waffles were not of the Belgian variety which tend to be thicker or even he might not have been able to finish the plate. The waffles were served with a rich cinnamon butter and sweet syrup. They were a perfect complement to the battered fried chicken which was fried to a golden hue. Steam wafted upward when he bit into his first piece launching an aroma into the air that smelled of a summer picnic.
13 June 2018: As previously recounted, this indolent blogger doesn’t much like having to work through the carapace of a lobster, crab claws and even shrimp shells. Ditto for boned chicken. That’s why the tenderoni platter (three battered chicken tenders served with fries, coleslaw and a roll) appealed so much to me. Well, that and the fact that the chicken tenders were all white meat. This is chicken worthy of Roscoe’s, better than any the Colonel could dream of preparing. The thick fries are battered in the same delicious concoction used on the fried chicken. Other restaurants serve battered or seasoned fries, but these are much better. The coleslaw is excellent, a creamy, tangy and fresh variety.
19 July 2019: “What’s that!” you say. “Aren’t tenderoni’s for kids?” In the immortal words of The Mighty Thor, Prince of Asgard and god of thunder, “I say thee nay!” Not these chicken tenders! The only “for kids” aspect of the tenderoni platter is its size. Sr. Plata threatened to take away my man-card after I ordered such a relatively puny plate. During my third visit, I ordered a much more adult portion–eight chicken tenders and two waffles. What a great decision! Three chicken tenders is just getting started. Eight is more like it, especially with two waffles on the side.
19 July 2019: Forgive me if you’ve heard this before. Since our return to the Land of Enchantment in 1995, we’ve been largely disappointed with the quality of catfish served in New Mexico’s restaurants. Some catfish has been so desiccated that we could have sworn it was coated in sawdust. That’s certainly not the case at Frank’s. Two lightly battered fillets give way easily to tender, dense and moist catfish meat as iridescent and delicious as we enjoyed in Mississippi a quarter-century ago. Back then, catfish were still considered “fish,” but in 2016, the United States Congress decided catfish are “meat.” Regardless of how catfish are classified, when they’re prepared well, pescatarians will agree that Frank’s catfish is outstanding.
19 July 2019: Leave it to my friend Bill Resnik to discover on his inaugural visit that the twelve wings plate can be prepared several different ways: original (fried), Nashville hot, Buffalo, Thriller, Muddy Waters (Gravy) or Honey Hot. Bill, who coined the phrase “pain is a flavor in New Mexico,” can’t get enough Nashville Hot Chicken so it was a no-brainer as to what he would order. Frank’s version of Nashville hot chicken is made with a dry rub that includes a discernible amount of paprika and other spices that give it a mild kick. Frank’s Nashville hot chicken might register at “medium on Firebird‘s scale, but it’s got such a great flavor and delightful crispiness that only masochists will miss the heat.
19 July 2019: Our server told us that if we wanted a more incendiary poultry experience, we need to order the twelve wings “Thriller” style. Thriller wings for firstname.lastname@example.org. It just made sense. She proceeded to bring us three wings “on the house” so we could sample them. The sharp, sour aroma of vinegar preceded their arrival. We agreed these were very good Buffalo wings, but not quite as incendiary as flame-eaters might want. When we suggested to Frank that the wings could have more heat, he admitted to not really being a fan of heat. Okay, so maybe he doesn’t serve the hottest wings in town, but he certainly serves the best!
16 October 2019: A lifetime ago during my Air Force days, whenever the dreaded Inspector General visited we made sure to take them to restaurants where even locals considered the chile muy picante. Not wanting to appear like spineless milquetoasts, our guests tried valiantly to keep up with us. When they thought we weren’t watching, they’d pour honey onto their chile. Using sweet flavors to tame piquant flavors isn’t uncommon. Frank’s employs this approach with its “honey hot” sauce, essentially using the influence of sweet honey to mollify the acidity and heat of a Buffalo sauce. The honey is discernible, but the Buffalo sauce is still the most prevalent flavor. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. A good Buffalo sauce is hard to beat an this is a good one.
16 October 2019: In 1984, I attended a conference at Scott Air Force Base just outside St. Louis, Missouri. On our first evening we were feted at Muddy Waters, a rollicking joint with good food and even better blues music. One of my colleagues made the mistake of wearing a tie to the event, not knowing the place had a strict “no necktie” policy. Anyone walking in sporting a necktie had it snipped. It quickly dawned on me that you shouldn’t wear a necktie when you order chicken wings with Frank’s Muddy Waters gravy. It’s not that they’re particularly messy, but in your enthusiasm to dig in, an errant drop of gravy or ten might find its way to your clothing. My friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver likened the gravy to what he’s experienced with chicken fried steak. It’s even got an aromatic pepper aroma. It’s not “lacquered on” your wings as so many wings sauces are, but it’s quite messy. It’s also quite good.
Frank’s Famous Chicken & Waffles is a labor of love for a very successful man who pursues the things he loves and does them all well. You won’t find better chicken anywhere in Albuquerque.
Frank’s Famous Chicken & Waffles
400 Washington Street, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 16 October 2019
1st VISIT: 13 June 2018
# OF VISITS: 5
BEST BET: 12 Wings and 2 Waffles, Tenderoni Platter, Fried Mushrooms, Fried Catfish, Wings with Muddy Waters Gravy, Wings with Honey Hot Sauce, Wings with Nashville Hot Sauce, Coleslaw