THE FOOD MAY BE FAMOUS, but it’s the music that’s jumping when you walk into Frank’s Famous Chicken and Waffles, in Albuquerque. Old-school tunes from Chaka Khan and Marvin Gaye fill the air, while vintage-style concert posters and a shrine to Prince entertain customers awaiting their sweet-and-salty fix.
The man behind these musical and culinary delights is Frank Willis, a six-foot-eight former University of New Mexico basketball player and Los Angeles native. Willis opened Frank’s 10 years ago after building a cult following delivering his cinnamon-kissed waffles and crispy fried chicken wings throughout the Duke City.
Thanks to a menu filled with shrimp and grits, catfish, collard greens, yams, fried okra, and other soul food favorites from his childhood, business has always been good. But a star turn on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives in December turned up the volume to 11. “It made me feel like we had arrived,” says Willis, who marveled at host Guy Fieri’s hosting ability.
Willis’s love of music started early. His dad, Frank Willis Sr., was a member of Black Ice, a five-man funk band popular in Inglewood, California, in the 1970s. Featured among the restaurant’s memorabilia is a gold record presented to Willis Sr. by Capital Records in 1977.
In high school, Willis interned at a Los Angeles radio station owned by Stevie Wonder and got to attend “all the concerts and comedy shows.” After college, Willis stayed in town and worked in music promotion and production, but dearly missed soul food. While on a business trip to Los Angeles, he took some Albuquerque friends to the legendary Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, in Hollywood, and watched them lose their minds. “The light went on in my head. I told my friends, ‘When we get back to Albuquerque, I’m going to open a chicken-and-waffles restaurant,’ ” he says. “I took my last $150, bought the food from Sam’s Club, and used waffle makers from the thrift store and a deep fryer from Walmart.”
Willis cooked at his sister Tiffany’s apartment and built a delivery business. After 10 months, he opened a brick-and-mortar eatery in northeast Albuquerque before moving to his current, larger location on Washington Street in 2019. His mother and sister work there, too; many of the recipes are family favorites. “The food here—the greens, all of it—came from my mom, grandmother, and grandfather, who cooked it for us at home,” says Willis, whose roots are in Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas.
Willis still has ties to the music industry, so plenty of celebrities find their way to Frank’s, including rapper Snoop Dogg and actors Seth Rogen and Omari Hardwick. “Whenever someone comes to town and asks, ‘Where’s the good soul food at?’ they bring them to me,” says Willis. “It’s crazy—these are people I used to idolize, and now I’m talking to them on the phone.”