When I stopped by Bobo's Chicken Shack over the weekend, owner Devon "Bobo" Crittenden listed off the details harrying him that particular day: Tax season, employee turnover, a foot of snow and an AWOL plowman, and a squirrel in the exhaust duct (safely dislodged before opening). "That had me contemplating on whether I should open or not, but I pushed through, opened, and had a successful, great day," he says.
These are the hassles any restaurateur in Rochester deals with on a given March day. But Crittenden also has another stack of cards, piled up over his 33 years, that has taken a different level of grit to push through, resulting in his Joseph Avenue restaurant entering its fifth year of business. Bobo's is recognized on Facebook, Yelp, and Google as one of the best spots in the city for soul food.
The story of soul food is one of perseverance and faith that traces its origins to the slave shacks of the rural South. Using what was available and affordable, black cooks developed culinary techniques for fried chicken, greens, ham hocks, cornbread, chitlins, candied yams, and black-eyed peas, to name a few. During the Great Migration that cuisine moved north and in the 1940's gained the moniker "soul food," demarcating it from Southern food in general, (or, even broader, "comfort food") and stamping it a specific part of historically Black culture.
As Crittenden drove to the Rochester Public Market on Saturday morning, his Cadillac sedan mirroring the gray of the sky, the words perseverance and faith keep coming up. He bought shrimp, yams, chicken, greens, and other supplies he'd need that day in a quantity that filled his car. He makes this trip every day except Monday, the only day Bobo's is closed.
"My mother was murdered," he says. "So my grandma raised us and I been with my grandma ever since I was seven."
He states this as a simple biographical truth while prepping yams and shrimp in the kitchen that makes up half of his restaurant. The other half is a waiting area for customers with several chairs and a wall covered with pictures, including a portrait of his grandmother.
"That's how I learned to fry chicken," he says. "You know, she was a southern lady from Alabama and one thing about them Alabama women -- they sure know how to fry some chicken," he said. "I always wanted to cook like her because when she cooked, it brought people together."
Crittenden slowly gained his grandmother's trust in the kitchen beginning when he was 12, and by the time he was 14, she sat at the end of the kitchen table and directed him.
"I was always trying to add a little more," he says. "Her shit -- she was diabetic -- it was good, don't get me wrong, but it was bland."
Despite his time in the kitchen, he says, he wanted a taste of life outside the house; a desire that resulted in him being shot in the chest by a .25 pistol when he was 18. Frustrated with his antics on the street, his grandmother kicked him out of the house. He finished recovering from his wounds in a homeless shelter and later got an apartment, only to be arrested for drugs and guns on the premises.
In jail, Crittenden remembered the God he heard so much about when his grandmother took him and his three siblings to church. "That was my breaking point," he says. "I said: 'I give up, Lord. You get me out of this one and I'll change my life,' and yes, you know, he got me out of it -- and I didn't look back ever since."
Opening Bobo's was a particular test of faith for Crittenden. After eight years at University of Rochester, where he worked as a lab animal technician in the School of Medicine and Dentistry, he unexpectedly lost his job. "So I was like, this really may be the best time for me to chase my dreams," he says. "It was the work of God."
For a year, Crittenden rode the bus around the city looking for the perfect location for his restaurant. "But mind you, I didn't have any money," he says, adding that he believed "God already had the plan situated."
He says knew he could make a living nourishing his neighborhood on his grandmother's recipes. And, he said, failure wasn't an option. After finding a landlord he calls "an angel," and with the help of some supportive friends and the Urban League of Rochester, Crittenden was able to open his doors in the same neighborhood where he grew up, lost his mom, learned to cook, nearly lost his life and his freedom, and found his way back.
Crittenden now wants to set an example for the next generation in the neighborhood. "You can sell something legal and be a boss," he said.
Newcomers, he says, should try the restaurant's namesake. The chicken comes fried to a crispiness that withstands a drenching of Bobo's sweet and smoky homemade sauce -- a recipe he developed when he was high. "That was back in my day, man," he says, adding that he's been sober for two years. Fried pork ribs are a novelty worth mentioning here, too -- it's a favorite among Bobo's regulars and certainly a supporting cast member to the chicken.
When it comes to sides, Bobo's mac and cheese has a stick-to-the-ribs satisfaction that tastes, oddly, even better the second day (portions are so big there may be leftovers). Yams are bathed in a sweet, vanilla-tinged glaze. Collard greens offer a savory refuge, with a classic, earthy bitterness from the smoke and salt of ham hocks hidden inside. Shrimp, which can be added to a combo and served over rice, are plump and snappy in texture, with a dash of Cajun flavors in the mix. Finally, included in each meal is a square of Bobo's sweet bread, a vanilla-flavored crumbling pound cake; a kiss sending the diner to that inevitable post-meal nap. Dinners and combination plates range from $12 to $21 and include a choice of two sides, rice, sauce, and sweet bread.
Crittenden says his next goal is to expand to a sit-down space, but for now, it's useful to call in your order ahead of time. If you can't get a call through, the food is worth the 15- to 25-minute wait.
"When you're looking at your child eating some fried chicken," he says, "and you get to see their face and know they're making that face because of the chicken, and you're making that same face, that's a joy."