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It’s a universal truth that in times of trouble, people turn to comfort food. It’s also true that there are nearly as many definitions of “comfort food” as there are people, varying from nation to nation, town to town, household to household, generation to generation. Be it Korean doenjang jjigae (fermented soybean-paste stew), Ashkenazi pickled herring on rye, or Salvadoran sopa de pata (cow-hoof soup), the specifics are sure to be as foreign to some as they are familiar to others.
There are a few common denominators. In any culture, the dishes that qualify as comfort food tend to be a) rib-sticking and b) what you might call little-d democratic—both economical and theoretically easy to prepare, requiring only basic ingredients and cookware. Here in the United States, one cuisine in particular answers to that description, right down to its name: soul food.
Though soul food is rooted in the South, it isn’t synonymous with Southern food, as Denver’s own Adrian Miller explains in his seminal text on the subject, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. It’s the product of a people, not a region, and one that reflects the history of the Black experience in the United States even as it continues to evolve. In other words, soul food is complicated, and I urge you to read Miller’s book for a full account of “the African Americans who left the Black Belt region of the South, settled across a nation, and reestablished and reinterpreted” culinary traditions born of both unspeakable hardship and celebration in spite of it.
But of the many definitions that Miller entertains—from the socio-historical to the philosophical—a few echo what chef Rhonda Banks has to say about her repertoire at Blazing Chicken Shack II, the Park Hill restaurant she opened with her wife-partner Leola Gant in 2017: “It’s food that’s cooked from love, from a Black culture and a Black perspective,” she says. “It’s simple, good food; it’s not fussy—it’s comfort food, something that warms the soul.”
What soul food isn’t, admittedly, is a focus of most culinary training programs. Banks—a native not of the South but of Omaha, Nebraska, whose family moved to Denver when she was three—is herself a Johnson & Wales graduate who has cooked professionally for more than 20 years, helming the kitchens of Gaetano’s, Wynkoop Brewing Co., and the recently closed Punch Bowl Social in Central Park, to name a few. “I learned a lot from those people—a lot about beer, a lot about Italian food,” she says. But “what I’m doing here is closer to what I learned at home from my grandmother. I developed my passion for cooking through her, just watching her and eating with her; my grandmother was one of my best friends. So some of the recipes have been passed down, some I’ve adapted myself from cooking for my family. You’re not gonna walk in my kitchen and find a big recipe book.” With a laugh, she adds, “I don’t need one of those.”
Moving from a now-defunct food truck (the original Blazing Chicken Shack) into their current space, Banks and Gant have developed a menu that doubles as a veritable cross-reference for Miller’s book; many of the dishes warrant chapters of their own. There’s fried chicken and fried catfish, those enduring centerpieces of communal feasts. There are black-eyed peas, which came to the Americas from Africa, and candied sweet potatoes or “yams,” a term borrowed from West Africa where true yams grow. There are collard greens cooked with pork and mac and cheese and peach cobbler and cornbread—which, Miller notes, is typically more savory and crumbly down south, sweeter and denser up north. That explains the cornbread that Gant makes at Blazing Chicken Shack II: “My wife kinda owns that [recipe] and keeps it close to her vest,” Banks admits. “My mother did traditional cornmeal bread with no sweetness to it; my wife was raised in Illinois, and they liked a cakier, sweeter version. She does it with a little bit of zing, adds some chile to it, some cheese to it.”
The historical use of offal in cuisines around the world is complex: It’s a standard feature of what the Italians call cucina povera (literally “poor cooking”) for the obvious reason that primary cuts have higher market value, but there are and have been plenty of exceptions to that general rule. Regardless, variety meats play an elevated role in soul food and at Blazing Chicken Shack II. Banks considers as specialties both her weekend-only oxtails and her chicken gizzards with fries, which “youIcan just pop in your mouth and go.” She also offers pork neck bones and a pig-ear sandwich that “a lot of people, when they eat it, remember from a café called Zona’s that was in Five Points. I try to do something close to that; I don’t know if I’ll ever perfect it.”
She’s being humble. Piled on a griddled bun with onion, mustard, and hot sauce, the fried strips are surprisingly tender and impeccably seasoned, as is everything Banks makes with her signature extra kick of pepper—from the gravy on the smothered pork chop to the batter for the fried okra to her wonderful gumbo, chock-full of shrimp, chicken, sausage, and rice. Granted, the stew, along with her red beans and rice, is a Cajun/Creole classic more than a soul food staple, but it’s all comforting in the extreme. As Banks puts it, “I want my food to be very approachable and recognizable, to take people back to, ‘I remember eating this when I was a kid.’”
That’s no doubt partly why business at the Blazing Chicken Shack II hasn’t, according to Banks, been hit too hard by the pandemic: We’re all looking for a familiar taste of home in this strange new world. And she and Gant deliver that comforting familiar, not just as restaurant owners, but as friends and neighbors in Park Hill, which she credits with being “very supportive of small businesses.” No wonder they’re optimistic enough to take small, careful steps into the future, applying for a wine-and-beer license and preparing to open their dining room, where, she says, “when you come in, you can actually see the chef, we can have a conversation. If you have a problem, you better come back and talk directly to me, and I’m gonna fix it.”
With a barbecue joint opening soon right near them, Banks hopes, “Maybe this block itself could turn into a soul food destination.”
Blazing Chicken Shack II is open Wednesday–Friday, 11 a.m.–6 p.m., Wednesday–Saturday, 1–6 p.m.; 5560 E. 33rd Ave., 720-596-4501