My Air Force friend and colleague Al Garcia once shared one of those amusing anecdotes that will leave your head shaking in disbelief even as you’re practically rolling on the floor with laughter. According to Al who grew up in the Socorro area, his parents had to make a daylong trip to the big city (Albuquerque), leaving him and his sister at home to finish their chores. At around lunchtime, he and his sister got hungry and decided to prepare some rice. Never having cooked rice before, they poured an entire bag of rice into a pot, added water and turned the stove on high.
In a few minutes, rice began spilling out over the pot like lava flowing from a volcano. Cooked rice covered the kitchen floor. Not wanting to anger their parents, Al and his sister decided to get rid of the evidence. They scooped up all the rice and fed it to their chickens. The chickens gorged themselves on the all-you-can-eat feast of rice, eating so much that they (and this is the part I found hard to believe) burst, fowl feathers exploding all over the yard. When their parents got home, Al and his sister were severely reprimanded. They had managed to kill all the family’s chickens.
My lack of sympathy for Al’s youthful plight didn’t bother him, not when I was laughing so hard he couldn’t help but join in. Al was a fellow trencherman with whom I often broke bread and tortillas. We frequented all the Chinese all-you-can-eat buffets along Central Avenue and gorged ourselves on fried chicken whenever we could find it. Every time we did, I’d ask if he thought the chickens were “rice-fed” and organically-raised. Maybe that’s why we didn’t visit too many fried chicken joints, not that there were many of those in Albuquerque at the time.
During the pandemic of the truly awful year 2020, diners increasingly turned to their favorite comfort foods for some sense of normalcy and solace. According to Nation’s Restaurant News, the classic American comfort dish most giving us that sense of normalcy and solace is fried chicken. Purveyors of deep-fried poultry reported significant sales volume increases during the pandemic. Hmm, maybe launching a new fried chicken restaurant at the height of Covid-19 wasn’t as ill-fated as you might think.
Launching a new fried chicken restaurant during the pandemic was precisely what Andrew Vela and his daughter Drew Lipscomb did. Of course, in February, 2020 when they purchased the building on Lomas that previously housed Monroe’s New Mexican Food, few could have predicted the dire consequences of the blight which changed the world. For months, Andrew and Drew worked on refurbishing the building, giving it a thorough make-over that left few, if any, vestiges of its previous tenant. Minus the cavalcade of cars that will someday fill the parking lot, Ms. Gennie’s House of Chicken looks and feels as if it’s always been there. It belongs!
Ms. Gennie’s opened for business on November 3rd, 2020 when restaurants were restricted to 25-percent occupancy. Not long thereafter, New Mexico’s restaurants were allowed to operate only under take-out and delivery modes. That’s not the way any restaurant owners want to start out, but those challenges didn’t deter Andrew and Drew who quickly established a presence on Selflane and Doordash and even created an eClub on their website. As is often the case, Gil’s Thrilling readers (thank you Dixie Burch) alerted me to the presence of Ms. Gennie’s, a restaurant we first visited on December 31st then again the following week. We were hooked at first bite.
It’s pretty apparent Andrew Vela has a restaurant background, having cut his teeth at his family’s two Tex-Mex style Mexican restaurants in Bay City, Texas. After high school, Andrew received a scholarship from New Mexico Highlands University to play baseball for the Cowboys. He met, fell in love with and married the love of his life in New Mexico and has been here ever since. For 27 years, he taught at-risk students at Rio Rancho Middle School before retiring in 2019. When his dad would visit from Texas, they planned for the eventual launch of a restaurant upon Andrew’s retirement. Out of respect for New Mexican cuisine, they decided the restaurant’s focus would not be Tex-Mex style Mexican food. Instead, they would offer something else that’s bigger and better in Texas than anywhere else–fried chicken.
Ms. Gennie’s House of Chicken is named for Andrew’s stepmother, the family matriarch whose strength, beliefs and love of family altered the path of the Vela family’s lives. Andrew’s deep spirituality and innate belief in the goodness of people comes from her influence. Their shared values are reflected in the way the staff interacts with each and every guest. There’s no “wait schtick” or rehearsed routine. At Ms. Gennie’s, every guest is treated with genuine kindness and made to feel welcome. Ms. Gennie’s is the type of restaurant that engenders loyalty–both to the fabulous fried chicken and to the wonderful family who treats everyone like friends.
Ms. Gennie’s menu offers five proteins: fried chicken, Southern roasted chicken, fried catfish, chicken fried steak and smoked sausage (regular or jalapeño). Family-style meals are available for four or six people though it’s possible (maybe likely) that four or six people might be able to get two meals out of the bounty. The family meal for six, for example, gives you the choice from among three Southern roasted half chickens, twelve pieces of Southern fried chicken, six pieces fried catfish, six chicken fried steaks and six smoked sausage along with three sides, a bread option (cornbread or biscuit) and one “pour-over” (red chile, green chile, brown gravy or white gravy). Plates and pieces are a good option for those of us who don’t have families of four or six or who can’t eat as if they did.
6 January 2021: Fried chicken may be the quintessential and beloved of all comfort foods. At Ms. Gennie’s, it’s prepared in a pressure fryer which seals in moistness beneath a hot golden breading with a delightful crunch. The sound of biting into crispy fried chicken, by the way, has been scientifically proven to be an under-appreciated reason we find the experience of eating fried chicken so comforting. The breading used at Ms. Gennie’s is golden brown and imparts a sonorous crunch. Unlike some chains which disguise hummingbird sized chicken pieces under thick layers of breading, the breading used at Ms. Gennie’s is optimal in thickness. You actually get much more chicken than breading (what a novel concept). During our two initial visits, we both enjoyed the four-piece white meat plate with two sides and bread (a biscuit our first visit, cornbread the second). To say we’re besotted by this chicken is an understatement.
6 January 2021: Aficionados of Texas barbecue recognize one of many proteins prepared exceptionally well across the Lone Star State is sausage. Some of the very best smoked sausage in the “whole other country” comes from Yoakum, Texas (between Houston and San Antonio). That’s where Ms. Gennie’s procures its sausage which it offers in two ways: traditional and jalapeño. Both are made from lean cuts of pork and beef combined with fresh spices and peppers from a traditional old world recipe. The jalapeño sausage is the best of both worlds–smoky and spicy with a pleasant piquancy that imparts itself on your taste buds and makes them very happy.
31 December 2020: Ms. Gennie’s offers eight sides: Gennie’s beans, mac n’ cheese, garlic mashed potatoes, coleslaw, green beans, house salad, Gennie’s rice and fire-roasted corn. We’ve had half of them. My Kim’s favorite is the buttery, smoky fire-roasted corn, golden niblets bespeckled with char. She also loves the green beans which sport more personality and flavor than just about any green beans we’ve had in a while. My early favorites are the coleslaw which is flecked with cilantro, a fresh and fragrant herb which enlivens the coleslaw.
13 February 2021: In March, 2088 Time Magazine profiled then Presidential candidate George Herbert Walker Bush, revealing his fondness for fried pork rinds with Tabasco sauce. A year later, the New York Times reported, “when Mr. Bush expressed a taste for pork rinds, sales jumped 11 percent and he was ordained ‘Skin Man of the Year’ by pork-rind makers.” The New York Times also reported that pork rind manufacturer Rudolph Foods Company had to have its employees work overtime to keep up with the demand. Low-carb and keto dieters applauded the President’s favorite snack choice. Pork rinds were one of my dad’s favorite snacks, too, though for most of his six children pork rinds have always been a take-it-or-leave-it snack. Ms. Gennie’s pork rinds are a definite “take it,” maybe a must-have. As with most pork rinds, they have a light, puffy and crunchy texture with nary a hint of fat. What distinguishes them, however, is a liberal sprinkling of lime salt that imbues each pork rind with a delightful citrusy tang. Even my Kim who normally eschews “fried Styrofoam” enjoyed them.
13 February 2021: The mission of the Texas State Historical Association is to “foster the appreciation, understanding, and teaching of the rich and unique history of Texas.” It’s a wonderful resource for studying the history of some of the favorite foods of Texas–foods such as chicken fried steak. Not surprisingly there are at least three “origin” stories that claim the dish was invented in the Lone Star State. Whether or not chicken fried steak actually had its genesis in Texas, one thing that can’t be debated is that no one prepares it as well as restaurants and home cooks across the “whole other country.”
Knowing the incomparable deliciousness with which Texans imbue chicken fried steak, it was inevitable chicken fried steak would be the next item I’d order at Ms. Gennie’s–especially after my friend Captain Escalante Tuttle waxed eloquent about it. This chicken fried steak is pounded into a tender slab then breaded lightly so that its golden hue just beckons–or at least the part that isn’t covered by the glorious white gravy with its peppery influence. The tenderized cube steak is fork-tender and absolutely delicious, a perfect accompaniment for skin-on mashed potatoes also covered in white gravy. This is a chicken fried steak worthy of Texas.
11 April 2021: Why, this here sauce is made in New York City!” “New York City? Git a rope!” Uttered in a 1980s commercial for Pace Picante sauce, those lines expressed the ire of several hungry cowboys who threatened to string up the cook for serving a “foreign” salsa (translation: not made in Texas). Pace Picante Sauce may be the most famous salsa to originate in Texas, but it’s probably not close to being the best. That distinction may belong to the salsa (jalapeños, cilantro, onions, tomatoes) at Ms. Gennie’s. It’s the best Texas-style we’ve ever had. Lest you pull the “but it’s made with jalapeños and not green chile” argument, let me point out that much of the salsa served in New Mexican restaurants is made with jalapeños. The composition of this salsa isn’t as important as how absolutely delicious it is. It’s got a pleasant piquancy and a flavor that can’t be beaten. The chips are crispy and low in salt.
11 April 2021: Author Aaron Gilbreath has “embarrassingly strong opinions,” among them the opinion that “Hard shell tacos weren’t true tacos, they were more vertical tostada sandwiches, a Frankenstein abomination that Taco Bell unleashed to give white America something “exotic” to eat without leaving the comfortable confines of its white world.” Vertical tostada sandwiches. Hmm, I’ll have to remember that one. Tostadas, which literally translate to “toasted” are flat, crispy corn tortilla shells topped with sundry ingredients. That doesn’t sound very excited, so when Andrew invited me to try Ms. Gennie’s chicken tostada I figured if was constructed with the restaurant’s incomparably delicious chicken, the chicken tostada would be good, but come on, they’d still be tostadas.
That they’d be good proved an understatement. Along with the uniquely brilliant tostada creations of Chef Dennis Apodaca at Urban Cocina, the chicken tostadas at Ms. Gennie’s have “best in the city” qualities. Three tostadas, each about the size of a particular craft which landed outside of Roswell in 1947, were much more filling–and delicious–than we had expected. Each fried corn tortilla was topped skyscraper high with fried chicken, shredded Cheddar cheese, lettuce, onion, cilantro and chopped tomatoes. Every bite is a celebration of bold flavors that work so well together, especially when topped with Ms. Gennie’s green chile. It’s green chile as good as you’ll find at any New Mexican restaurant with a nice bite and smoky flavor.
5 December 2021: Willard Scott, who played both Bozo the Clown and the original Ronald McDonald on television then earned his greatest fame as the longtime weather forecaster on the “Today” show was quite a gourmand. One of his very favorite foods: “If I go down in for anything in history, I would like to be known as the person who convinced the American people that catfish is one of the finest eating fishes in the world.” In that respect, we were certainly simpatico. During our eight years on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, we must have consumed a couple of ponds worth of catfish. Mississippi ranks number one in the country in catfish production, raising 58% of the catfish grown in the United States.
When it comes to catfish, the Land of Enchantment is a minnow in the country’s aquaculture pond. New Mexico neither produces nor consumes a great deal of catfish. For my Kim and I, it’s always a great treat to find catfish on a restaurant’s menu–even better when the catfish is actually good (a rarity). Andrew grew up catching catfish in East Texas so it’s only natural that he’d offer the bottom-dweller on his restaurant’s menu. Ms. Gennie’s catfish is rolled in a cornbread batter and fried to a golden sheen. Available as a plate (with two sides, a bread and a pour-over) or individually as a single fillet, this is catfish reminiscent of the catfish we enjoyed so much in Mississippi. The cornmeal-dusted exterior imparts a subtle flavor that allows the juicy, flavorful fish to shine. A squeeze or two of lemon is all you need.
13 February 2021: Ruth Reichl, former editor of Gourmet Magazine, once declared “If you start with a great peach, there’s nothing you’re ever going to do that’s going to make it any better than when it comes off the tree.” Is it possible Reichl has never had peach cobbler topped with Blue Bell vanilla ice cream. Few things in life are better than peach cobbler a la mode. Ms. Gennie’s version is terrific with sweet-tangy-juicy peaches served warm in a bowl with soft crust and vanilla ice cream (Blue Bell, a Texas favorite, of course) on the side instead of being lopped atop the cobbler.
5 December 2021: Living on the Mississippi Gulf Coast meant at least once-a-month visits to the Crescent City, one of the most exciting cities in the world. Summer’s sweltering heat and stifling humidity meant we had to find ways to stay cool. One of our very favorite treats–and back then the highest rated “restaurant” in the Zagat’s Guide to dining in New Orleans–was Hansen’s Snow-Blitz just off the French Quarter. With its outlandish combinations of shaved ices and frozen treats (banana shaved ice topped with bananas foster anyone?), Hansen’s was our salvation on many an unbearable day. Don’t dare confuse its “snoballs” with snow cones. While snow cones are dense and rough, Hansen’s sno balls are finely shaved and delicate, almost powdery.
Andrew grew up enjoying Texas snowballs which are very similar to Hansen’s sno balls. In January, 2022, he plans to introduce them on the menu once the Ms. Gennie’s staff is fully trained in operating the ice machine. Six flavors will be featured: grape, strawberry, tiger’s blood, lime, blue raspberry and black cherry. There will also be an adult-flavored snowball, one drizzled in rum. You can also enjoy two add-ons with your Texas snowballs: sweet cream or a scoop of Blue Bell vanilla ice cream. Andrew gave me a preview of this magnificent treat, a strawberry snowball with a drizzle of sweet cream. It was fabulous, very reminiscent of the sno balls we enjoyed so much in New Orleans. Even in winter’s cold, Texas snowballs are a welcome treat.
11 April 2021: I mentioned earlier that for 27 years, Andrew taught at-risk students at Rio Rancho Middle School before retiring in 2019. The theme of a teacher appreciation and recognition reception in May, 2018, was “It takes a big heart to shape little minds.” Andrew’s big heart was the reason he was one of the recipients of a teacher appreciation award, the citation of which read: “His ability to take children with behavioral issues and mold them into respectable young men is quite amazing. My son went from mostly F’s . . . to making the honor roll and being a . . . responsible young man at home . . . Mr. Vela doesn’t accept that a young man is only the bad choices he may have made in the past. He expects so much more from his students and he gets that through hard work and respect.” Andrew’s innate ability to reach at-risk students makes him the consummate host at Ms. Gennie’s where the biggest risk is running out of chicken. Fortunately he and Drew have crafted a menu that offers a variety of dishes, all delicious and generously portioned.
Andrew and Drew have big plans for Ms. Gennie’s House of Chicken that will keep things interesting. Their Southern roasted chicken will be showcased on a number of specials including Tex-Mex style enchiladas. Until then, there’s still much to explore, eat and enjoy on a Texas-sized menu brought to Albuquerque by some of the nicest restaurateurs you’ll ever meet.
Ms. Gennie’s House of Chicken
1520 Lomas, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 5 December 2021
1st VISIT: 31 December 2020
# OF VISITS: 6
BEST BET: Four Piece White Chicken, Biscuits, Fire-Roasted Corn, Coleslaw, Mac n’ Cheese, Jalapeño Sausage, Chicken Fried Steak, Garlic Mashed Potatoes, Pork Rinds, Peach Cobbler with Blue Bell Vanilla Ice Cream, Chicken Tostada, Chips and Salsa, Texas Snowball, Catfish