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Randall’s opened in the Cole district just a few weeks ago, but anyone observing the constant comings and goings in the little Creole- and Cajun-centric restaurant might think it had been a neighborhood hub for decades. That’s partly because, in other incarnations, it has been—launching as a food trailer in 1994, it became a brick-and-mortar establishment just a few blocks from its current address in 2007 before relocating to (and then within) Five Points, where it remained from 2014 to 2018.
But it’s mainly because chef-owner Randall Borne himself is a beloved local fixture. Moving to Denver from his native Edgard, Louisiana, as a kid in the 1980s, he went to Cole Middle School and Manual High School. Borne left only briefly for college in Baton Rouge before returning for good to foster a sense of community that’s palpable—even behind the masks and within the social-distancing guidelines of the pandemic—from the moment you enter. Be it for the Tuesday lunch rush for crawfish etouffée or mid-afternoon drinks on a Friday, customers are already making themselves at home at all hours there. And that’s just as Borne wants it: “We have Southern hospitality back home—everybody always wants people to come to over and eat,” he says. “Before I started [cooking professionally], we used to have people over at my house. This is a branch of that, really.”
In fact, Borne admitted when I sat down with him for an interview recently, “What made me decide to reopen now was—I’m not gonna say pressure, but everybody was missing it. It kinda shows [in the fact that] I have a lot of friends who are helping me get going,” working both in the kitchen and at the front of the house. And he was as intent on bringing them into the story as he was on telling his own.
How’d he get his start? “The guy who just left, I went to college with. We ate mostly chicken quarters and ramen noodles—that was all you could afford in college. So we cooked them many different ways.”
Will the new Randall’s feature an entertainment lineup? “We still want to do live music for happy hour on Fridays. That’s one of the musicians back in the back [of the restaurant] there—he’s in one of the bands that played at my last place,” Borne says.
Who painted the fabulous mural of Louis Armstrong on the wall in Randall’s dining room? Why, that would be Kiana Gatling, the young woman who had just walked in the door with her mother. Borne explained that he was talking to a mutual friend “about this artist who was going to do this mural for me who didn’t show up, and she said, ‘Hey, I have this former student,’ and showed me some of her art. I was like, ‘That’s amazing, but I don’t know if I can afford it.’ But [Gatling] said, ‘I will gift it to you for your opening.’ It was super nice, and that’s how we ended up meeting.”
Now, Borne added, he wanted me to interview her as well (more on that later) “to get her name out there, because everybody pretty much knows me. It’s her first big [piece]. Her mom did this time-lapse video [of the painting process], and it’s like you see the detail, starting with the eyes, with a brush this small. You see the whole thing [coming together].” Clearly, he couldn’t be prouder.
By contrast, Borne isn’t inclined to take much credit for his own skills. The youngest of 16 children, he recalled that “my mom and all my sisters and brothers could cook. When I said I was opening up a place here, my cousins kinda laughed and said, ‘Really?’ They didn’t think I was a good cook compared to them.”
Denverites would beg to differ. That includes me and former 5280 food editor Denise Mickelsen, who were wowed by the full spectrum of intense flavors Borne coaxes from his crunchy-yet-flaky fried catfish and tender, spice-crusted pork chop; the plump shrimp he piles high on his po’ boy; and his velvet-textured cabbage. And then there’s Borne’s deeply savory, peppery gumbo: Available Mondays and Fridays only, it’s chock-full of shell-on crab pieces, shrimp, ham hock, beef sausage, chicken wings, and more, depending on the day. “I’m not a fan of okra so I don’t do it that way, but sometimes I’ll do oysters, sometimes I’ll do turkey necks, which is a thing back home,” he says of his gumbo recipe. “You watch people do it all your life, so it comes natural. One thing we do is we’re heavy on the seasoning—everything is seasoned rich. I’ve been doing this now 27 years, and it’s been pretty good.”
Other items on the concise opening menu include hot links, wings (breaded or honey hot), burgers, and sides like potato salad and red beans and rice, but Borne plans to expand the selection over time, incorporating favorites such as stuffed shrimp, rib eye, crab cakes, and those turkey necks. “We want it to be more of a sit-down family place,” he asserted, noting that in addition to the weekly live-music schedule there might be karaoke on Sundays and comedy shows, too.
Offering aspiring performers and artists a platform is, then, part and parcel of the community spirit that Randall’s exemplifies—which brings us back to Gatling. As the 22-year-old illustrator/designer/painter told me, “I’ve been doing art all my life, writing on myself or writing on the walls. I used to get in trouble.” But as her talent began to manifest, “my mom was like, ‘I think you should pursue this.’” Further encouragement from teachers has led to a burgeoning career and, now, Gatling’s first-ever mural, for which Borne gave her free rein. Other than depicting the legendary jazz great, he assured her, “the rest was my decision. I was pretty nervous, but I was excited.”
For Borne—whose own young life in Denver was shaped by family members determined “to get me on the right path”—that kind of support is what being a business owner is all about. “I just wanted to help out, because people helped me.”