In the age of instant Internet fame, Wikipedia, and make-or-break online reviews, it is rare to find a truly obscure dining establishment. The Cameroonian pop-up and catering company A Taste of Africa is perhaps one of the few. Sure, it has had its share of press (East Bay Express visited this spring) and has a devoted (albeit small) Yelp following, but the restaurant remains a bit of an enigma. A Taste of Africa has only a meager Facebook page with no pictures; a rarely answered phone number and an address are its only paper trail. Few diners are familiar with the subtly flavored, gently stewed meat and vegetable dishes that make up the cuisine of Cameroon; indeed, many mislabel the food as Caribbean or Moroccan in their Yelp reviews. These visitors express delight and excitement at “discovering” a restaurant and chef who has, in fact, been feeding hungry diners for years.
These things we know: Chef Malong Pendar started offering his home-style take on West African cuisine out of a van at the Ashby Flea Market at the tender age of 18, and he’s been dishing out plates piled high with ndole (the signature peanut and spinach stew of Cameroon) and jollof rice pilaf in various guises ever since. For a few years, he even had a brick-and-mortar restaurant in South Berkeley, but this spot shuttered a couple years ago. Today, Pendar is either catering parties or setting up his Tuesday night pop-up at Room 389, a bar in Oakland’s Adams Point neighborhood.
It isn’t hard to find Pendar once one walks into the bar. Most of the customers are crowded around his corner, joking with the affable chef and sniffing at the hot sauce. Despite many dishes listed on the colorful, detailed menu out front, there’s really only one decision to be made come ordering time: chicken or fish. Either option comes balanced precariously on top of the cornucopia of dishes pictured out front: jollof rice, sule (fried plantain fritters), ewole (sautéed spinach and peppers), nsoke (stewed black eyed peas), nkule (coconut ginger yams), and his signature ndole.
On a recent Tuesday, Pendar also had on hand a third option — sautéed prawns — making the usual either/or decision even more daunting. When asked for his recommendation, he simply grinned and launched into a elaborate description of each dish, interspersing words with more grins, laughs and “mmmmm”s: The chicken is a mix of white and dark meat, slowly braised in a mix of African spices, pulled off the bone, shredded, and then tossed back into the bold, flavorful cooking liquid. Each fillet of fish (tilapia) is tossed in a potent gingery coating before being breaded and fried quickly in vegetable oil. The prawns are quickly sautéed in garlic and butter for a more subtle choice. For those who can’t make up their minds, Pendar will plate everything together; just be warned that this solution makes for an even more massive plate of food.
Given Pendar’s limitations serving pre-made food in the back of a bar, his combination plates are surprisingly successful. The chicken is moist and fragrant with warm spice, the ndole is appropriately rich and earthy, and the fish is expertly seasoned and fried. Even better, though, are the yams. Each bite of gingery tuber is a bright, bold breath of fresh air on a plate of otherwise heavy sides. On the other hand, the plantains were cold, chewy, and forgettable. The spinach, while magically holding onto its bright green color, lacked seasoning and depth; a little extra salt could have gone a long way. The jollof rice seemed to get lost among the other dishes.
Of course, one cannot discuss A Taste of Africa without mentioning the hot sauce. This smoky, fiery concoction made mostly of habañero chilies is added as a final touch to each plate. It is a welcome burst of flavor for the less-seasoned dishes, but makes for a sweat-inducing bite if not careful. Dab it on with care, and the meal will be all the better.
Hot sauce aside, the best reason for visiting A Taste of Africa is Pendar himself. Personable, gregarious and energetic, he clearly cooks from his heart. A plate of his food is as warming as any served by a doting grandparent or loving spouse. It is soul food in the truest sense: a piece of Pendar’s generous personality in every bite.
Restaurant: A Taste of Africa at Room 389, Tuesday nights only.
Details: 389 Grand Ave., Oakland. 510- 938-1680.
Dish: Combination platter of Cameroonian style vegetables, rice, chicken, and peanut stew served in generous portions with a flashy, heartfelt smile.
Cost: $10 for vegetarian platter, $13 for chicken or fish, $2 for each additional meat. Five minute wait for food when crowded. Cash only.
Other dishes of note: Fried fish, sautéed prawns
Kate Williams was raised in Atlanta with an eager appetite. She spent two years as a test cook at America’s Test Kitchen before moving out to Berkeley to write, eat, and escape the winter. She currently writes for Serious Eats and The Oxford American, in addition to her work at Berkeleyside NOSH.