The low-slung, battleship-gray building at the foot of Thornton’s twin water towers just off West 104th Avenue hardly seems like a prime location for a restaurant. A garage for city vehicles or perhaps a maintenance workshop, sure, but the structure lacks the welcoming air and, most important, consideration when selling food that might draw customers: location, location, location. Instead, it hunkers in the middle of an otherwise vacant lot at 10254 Ura Lane, on a mostly forgotten street that leads nowhere but past aging apartments and housing developments. Still, chef Nahasa Bachir thought it looked perfect when he decided to go into business for himself last summer and began slinging chicken wings on the patio, alongside a liquor store that takes up the front half of the building.
Neighbors took notice and were soon forming lines at Bachir’s Soul Food (as he named his business) on Sundays, buying up every wing and whatever else the chef, born and raised near West Point, Mississippi, put on his menu. Inside that building, with its odd angles and maze of interior rooms, an old dive bar with a kitchen was just what Bachir needed to bring his business inside for the colder months. He leased the kitchen and one small dining room to start with, buying enough plates and silverware for the folks who could fit inside and shopping for ingredients almost daily to make sure he was serving the freshest food he could.
Soon that tiny dining room wasn’t enough (one day was so busy the chef had to run out and buy more plates), so the landlord offered Bachir his convenience-store space (the business was foundering, anyway), an odd mashup of that dive bar and a grocery store, with glass-front refrigerators (some still half-full of soda bottles) lining three of the walls. Overall, the restaurant has the feel of a country gas station, where neighbors come for food, drink, conversation and sundries (though the sundries are no longer for sale), all under one roof.
Photos of Richard Pryor and James Earl Jones are evidence that this is a soul food restaurant, though, as is the deep, almost swampy smell of greens slowly simmering in a pot and the occasional roar of the fryer coming to life in a kitchen somewhere behind black and purple curtains.
Bachir says he’s been cooking his whole life; his first job was washing dishes, but he was on the line within two weeks of that, working in buffet restaurants in northeastern Mississippi before marrying a Denver native and taking jobs at hotels and casinos in Colorado’s mountain towns, as well as working for Sodexo on the University of Denver campus. “I thought that if I had a skill, I’d always have a job,” he explains. “I made cooking my skill.”
Cooking soul food is certainly a skill, but it’s also more than that. “Soul food is just food cooked with love,” Bachir says. “I’ve got the soul — and this is my food.”
Beyond wings, Bachir’s also sells fried chicken, barbecue beef ribs, Southern fried fish (with a side of spaghetti and meat sauce, if you know your soul food), burgers and Philly cheesesteak sandwiches.
But surely cheesesteaks aren’t soul food, right? Bachir agrees, though he also notes that while anyone can make a sandwich, his is better because he takes the time to do it right.
Tuesdays are fried-chicken day at Bachir’s; for an almost impossibly low $5, you can get two pieces of dark meat or one bone-in breast with sides of collard greens and macaroni and cheese. Some upscale Southern eateries in trendier parts of town (though just about anywhere is trendier than Ura Lane) charge more than $5 just for the collards, but you won’t find a better version anywhere else: spicy, cooked down to a seaweed green and dripping with rich pot liquor that calls out for a spoon or a piece of Bachir’s simple cornbread so you don’t miss a drop.
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The macaroni and cheese is just that: elbow noodles and cheese, with a sprinkling of breadcrumbs for a little extra texture. The fried chicken itself is juicy all the way to the bone, and the crust is light and crackly, not greasy in the least. If it weren’t for the surroundings, surely Denver’s scenesters would have already hunted down Bachir’s fried bird and wings as paragons of the current chicken craze.
The chef admits that his first foray into self-employment was selling wings on his own front porch; friends and neighbors flocked to his street for a day — until the aroma of grilled meats hit the wrong nostrils and he got shut down. In spirit, Bachir’s Soul Food isn’t much different; the restaurant is just one man who loves to cook, with a small waitstaff serving the food he grew up eating. Rich baked beans with so many competing flavors that your tastebuds just give up and enjoy the chaos; skin-on potato salad that doesn’t get bogged down in heavy dollops of mayo or mustard; ribs that carry the distinct char of beef-fat flare-ups from the grill, along with a generous slick of sweet barbecue sauce. They’re chewy ribs that require a little extra work, but make for good leftovers after the flavors meld overnight in the fridge.
Sometimes cooking is just making do with what you’ve got, turning everyday ingredients into something soulful and delicious. Bachir’s is that, and so much more. Beneath flickering strips of LED lights (which aren’t quite timed to the R & B tunes coming from hidden speakers) and faux-brick arches, customers settle in for a Mississippi chef’s taste of home. The waitress is cheerful and brightens the otherwise dim space with her personality and deliveries of free sides of cornbread, until Bachir signals that another order is up with the ring of a bell.
This place may not have much, but it’s got soul.