Big Al Anderson drives up to his Genesee Family Restaurant and apologizes for opening late, saying he's been helping a friend. Priorities matter, and there's no question that a friend comes before opening on time for a man raising his seventh and eighth foster children (he also raised two of his own). Anderson opened this place in 1993, while he was a project coordinator for Kodak. He left that job in 1998, but still calls this a part-time gig. The rest of his time is for his kids and his big brother work.
Anderson serves what he calls "down home foods." It's Southern-based, and different from soul food in that he makes an effort to decrease the fat content. He learned to cook as his "mama's helper" on his family's farm in Brandon, Mississippi, and he learned well. This is righteous food, full of flavor and served up in generous portions, with cornbread for mopping up.
The rib dinner fed my two kids twice. Anderson's trick with ribs is to steam them tender after grilling. He says if they're falling off the bone, you've gone too far, and he takes them just far enough. His sauce is sweet and aromatic, not piquant (perfect for kids). Eight bucks scores an enormous half-rack, cornbread, and two sides.
Sides ought to be a main attraction, and these don't disappoint. Collard greens have to be cooked just right: underdone, they're tough; overdone, and you get a pile of mush. These were crisp-tender, with just a hint of fat, allowing the greens' sweetness to shine. Candied yams were sinful, with a soul of cinnamon and nutmeg, soft, sweet, and buttery. Black-eyed peas with bacon are great with hot sauce, and mac-and-cheese is a simple treat. The cornbread is a bit dry but just fine as a sponge for sauces.
Running a restaurant must seem easy to him. One of 16 children, he grew up working his family's 26-acre farm and picking cotton. The pay was $2 for 100 pounds, and at 14, he once picked 417 pounds in one day (a friend taught him to pick early, when dew increased the weight). He also traded odd jobs in exchange for martial arts lessons, and became a black belt in his teens.
Anderson later served two tours in Vietnam, being shot several times for his trouble. Stationed in Germany, he applied for a position teaching self-defense to women. Because there were over 200 applicants, the colonel held an elimination kickboxing tournament, which Anderson won. He teaches self-defense, as well as archery and survival skills, to the kids he works with now.
The menu is simple. Burgers are $1.75 and $2.50 ($.25 for cheese), large, and served on a very good roll with fresh veggies. The fries aren't fresh cut, but they're cooked very well ($1). Three hots are $1.99, and sausage is $2.50. Bargains abound.
All dinner prices include cornbread and two sides. Chicken dinners are $7.50, and my wife, Anne, loved both baked and barbequed. Ten chicken wings, battered and fried, are moist and delicious ($5). Pepper steak wasn't as good, but fed me twice for $9, and there are also oxtails or chitterlings. (If you don't know what chitterlings are, don't ask.)
Much of the business is takeout, but the Genesee Family Restaurant is fairly comfortable. It's small, but clean, with good chairs and air conditioning. One hand-written sign reads, "We give thanks to the Lord and wish all who enter peace, love, and joy." Anderson is a wonderful host, often coming over and sitting with you while discussing your order. Sometimes patrons watch kung fu movies while waiting for their orders.
The Genesee Family Restaurant is a great alternative to your basic greasy spoon diner. The prices are right, the food is good, and the atmosphere is warm and welcoming. Some people tell me they're afraid of Genesee Street, but I go there all the time and never have problems. Try taking a few steps off the beaten path sometime.
Genesee Family Restaurant, 211 Genesee St., 235-3420. Hours: Weds-Sat, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. (call first, though).
The Little Bakery quietly added sandwiches to its repertoire, and now it's added a sandwich counter. The bread is spectacular, and the staff can grill the sandwiches (feta, Portobello, and roasted red pepper on focaccia is especially good). My daughter likes the egg salad, and there are several other options. For $5.50 you get a box lunch with fruit and a huge cookie ($4.50 for just the sandwich).
Michael Warren Thomas
Michael Warren Thomas can be heard on WYSL 1040. Tune in on Saturdays for gardening, restaurants, and travel from 9 to noon, and on Sundays for antiques and wine from 10 to noon. Listen live on the web at www.SavorLife.com.