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Diasporian News of Thursday, 30 April 2015

Source: East Bay Express

Cameroonian restaurant pops up in East Oakland, US

The first and best West African meal I ever ate was handed to me from the dim recesses of a crowded Oakland bar: a paper plate piled as high as you can imagine with smoky fried tilapia, ginger-spiced yams, stewed black-eyed peas, fragrant jollof rice, and peanut-spinach stew (ndole) — Cameroon’s national dish.

Malong Pendar, the man responsible for the delicious spread, has been bringing his Taste of Africa pop-up to bars and clubs all over the East Bay since 2010, when his Cameroonian restaurant of the same name in South Berkeley closed.

If you haven’t had the good fortune of stumbling upon the pop-up, or aren’t inclined to hang out at nightclubs, here’s excellent news: A few weeks ago, Pendar opened A Taste of Africa as a brick-and-mortar restaurant at 6638 Bancroft Avenue, not far from the Eastmont Town Center in East Oakland.

Pendar described the new restaurant as a bit of a “scientific experiment,” in part, he said, because it’s located far away from his primary customer base in North Oakland and Berkeley. (In addition to the now-shuttered Berkeley restaurant, Pendar has sold his food at the Ashby Flea Market on the weekend since the early Nineties.) So, to appeal to the barbecue-eating customers of his new neighborhood, he’s testing out new menu items: fish and chicken sliders and something called an “Afrito,” which Pendar says is the world’s first African burrito.

The restaurant — a former Salvadoran-Mexican eatery — has a small, twenty-seat dining area, but a large kitchen, so it can offer more specials, Pendar said. On occasion, he’ll serve crispy black-eyed pea fritters (akara) and a few different varieties of banana-leaf-wrapped, tamal-like steamed cakes, including his personal favorite, Nigerian moi-moi, which is made with shelled black-eyed peas.

But the foundation of the menu will be the combination plate that served as my introduction to Cameroonian cuisine — an abundant, vegan-friendly base to which meat eaters can add chicken, fish, shrimp, lamb, or oxtails. As for Pendar’s weapons-grade smoked habañero hot sauce: “Come on,” the chef said. “Without the hot sauce, I can’t even eat.”

The new restaurant caps off an impressive comeback for Pendar, who nearly had to shut down his pop-up business last summer when a series of financial calamities — an impounded car, unexpected health department bill, and an overdue rent payment for his home — all hit at once. But supporters donated nearly $5,000 in three days through a crowdfunding campaign started by friends of the chef, allowing him to get back on his feet. “The community is like my heartbeat,” Pendar said.

Now he’s hard at work extending that community to East Oakland. A Taste of Africa is currently open for dinner Tuesday to Friday, from 3­–8:30 p.m.