What’s a bunny chow? How about kitfo and fufu? Those are just three of the signatures for a trio of different cuisines from the giant continent of Africa. And, for a continent of its vast size and staggering number of unique cultures, it’s surprising how small of an impact its cuisines have had on the Bay Area. Outside of Moroccan restaurants and Ethiopian ones, the Bay Area is limited to a handful of restaurants representing countries from South Africa to Tunisia to Nigeria.
That’s too bad for curious local diners. But, there are exciting opportunities to learn about several cuisines with a little bit of research. As we learned eating our way around the continent by exploring Africa’s cuisines around the Bay Area, there are many gems to be found, whether it’s a perfectly spiced piece of goat or a destination-worthy Moroccan pastry. Join us for a tour around ten different specific African cuisine and African-inspired restaurants.
Amawele’s South African Kitchen
There is no Chenin Blanc or Pinotage at the city’s lone South African food kiosk. You’ll have to head to a wine store for the country’s wines, which are far better known in the U.S. than South African cuisine.
Thanks to amaweles (a Zulu word for twins), Pam and Wendy Michaelson, San Francisco has one spot for learning about this diverse country that is somewhat similar to California climate-wise but almost exactly half a world away from here.
The identical twin sisters grew up in Durban, South Africa’s third-largest major city (think Chicago with Los Angeles’ location). It’s a fun, easy-going beach vibe that’s also a giant city on the Indian Ocean. It’s also quite notable for its dining scene, reflecting the diversity of its country. South Africa’s indigenous population and immigrants from centuries of being a colony for European empires have led to a decidedly eclectic cuisine. On the plate, influences come from England, the Netherlands, Malaysia, India, Portugal and the local African history.
Pam and Wendy initially lived in the country’s capital and largest city, Johannesburg, and tried to make it as professional singers, while working in the mundane world of finance. One career didn’t quite pan out and the other wasn’t fulfilling. So, they decided to explore traveling around the U.S. as childcare providers. The mutual love of cooking led them to their current restaurant home, Amawele’s South African Kitchen, in San Francisco, curiously located in the FiDi’s Rincon Center (best known as the home of Yank Sing). Fast-casual tends to be more of a niche for burritos, sandwiches, salads and the like — not complex curries and obscure names like bunny chow.
If you’re after the Instagram likes, South Africa’s fast food favorite, bunny chow, is obligatory. It’s not colorful but it’s pretty profound visually. There are no rabbits involved — rather a deeply nuanced and carefully spiced curry full of tender beef hunks in a hollowed out bread bowl. SF diners, I know what you’re thinking but this bread is more like a thick, fluffy white loaf than hearty sourdough à la Fisherman’s Wharf clam chowder in sourdough bowls. Except here, the curry doesn’t just stay in the bread bowl. It overflows filling the whole container. Talk about a dish not meant for take-out but has to be served to-go. Eat with caution.
Also on the fast food-drunk food side of South African cuisine and a popular item at Amawele’s is frikadella, a Dutch-style meatball that usually is served on soggy fries but here the two are served together as a wrap (hello, fast-casual!). It’s the South African version of Primanti Brothers, the everything-in-one sandwich behemoth from Pittsburgh (try it in SF at Giordano’s Bros. in the Mission).
Along with the bunny chow, peri peri chicken is a must at Amawele’s, where the sauce made in-house (also sold by the bottle) boasts a sharp, bright chile kick that burns but doesn’t hurt when slathered on chicken and served paleo-style on vegetables. It’s too bad the chicken breast is dry but just focus on the sauce.
Also on trend, like the paleo section of the menu, quinoa can replace the Cape Malay spiced rice dish with proteins of your choice on top. It works particularly well with sweet potatoes and a host of non-seasonal vegetables (carrots, broccoli) that taste fine but are an uninspiring diet-friendly ensemble. Paleo or quinoa bowl, both are very fitting for a weekday lunch that will power you into the afternoon, not weigh you down at the 3 PM meeting. But, honestly, if you’re exploring South African cuisine, get the bunny chow. Leave the paleo stuff for later.
Once you’re through your giant meal (the bunny chow can easily serve two), linger with the housemade rooibos tea on a seating cushion by Rincon Center’s fountain and think how peaceful this is compared to the mad rush for dim sum a few steps away at Yank Sing. Eating bunny chow gazing at the upside-down fountain is one of those quirky “this can only happen here” moments that can liven up any routine weekday lunch hour.
There is no seating, no park nearby to picnic at and congested parking in the narrow parking lot where the months-old Somali food trailer, Safari Kitchen, resides in. It’s decidedly no-frills and feels like Austin, Texas both with the fact that it’s a niche cuisine food trailer and the roaring summer heat on one visit. Continuing the no-frills agenda, the menu doesn’t provide much choice either. You’ll have a bed of rice topped with beef, chicken, beef and chicken, or vegetables. So, you better like rice.
Those familiar with The Halal Guys will notice this Somali staple isn’t dissimilar (there is even mild white sauce and a hot red sauce to squeeze on) but miles superior in everything from the recent New York transplant addition to SF — from the quality of meat to the heavy hand in seasoning to the slickness of the rice. A host of spices (“all starting with “C” as the cook in the Safari Kitchen trailer joked) including coriander, cumin, cinnamon and cardamom penetrate every cube of chicken and beef, along with the base of buttery, perky basmati rice. Imagine the flavor profile of barbecue with a supporting element of tandoori. Combined it’s smoky, sweet, salty and has a hint of umami that keeps bite after bite of meat and rice seem far more enticing than it sounds like. Sure, it’s enough food for two hungry eaters but who can complain about leftovers?
You’ll round out the meal with samusas, which are exactly like the better-known samosas in several other cultures around Africa, the Middle East and Asia. The flaky phyllo triangles filled with beautifully spiced, juicy ground beef. Also try the sweet version with cherry preserves that might be less traditional but will compete with any fruit preserve hand pie you’ve encountered before. The fry is perfect in both versions with not a speck of grease anywhere. It’s easy to fill up on these alone. Don’t do it.
At just a few months old, Safari Kitchen is still in its youthful stage and awaiting its first academic year with the nearby college students (it's right between Downtown and San Jose State). Co-owners Amin Munye and Guled Yousef met as undergraduate students at Arizona State University and both ended up in the Bay Area afterwards — Guled in tech and Amin as a barber at The Barbers Inc. The two decided to give entrepreneurship a try but originally had no idea what type of business to do. Munye is originally from Somalia and moved to the US when he was 14. His older sister worked for the US embassy in Somalia and was given the option to move to the US for health reasons. A few years later, Amin and his family were able to join her in the US where they settled in the South Bay. After all sorts of business plan brainstorms, the two budding entrepreneurs thought, “Why not do a food truck with a few dishes from Somalia served?” The Safari Kitchen then was born and the hope is to eventually have a more substantial menu and sit-down experience at a brick and mortar restaurant.
This is definitely not your average food trailer (or truck or stand or vendor or what not). The logo of a zebra made of cooking utensils is even pretty startling, just like the tenderness of the meat and deft hand with a cupboard of spices. Thinking about the rice plates, we’re ready for our next Somali lunch.
The sit-down restaurant Jubba is Safari Kitchen’s contrast, on the opposite side of the sprawling city of San Jose and boasting the same no-frills vibe but there are chairs, tables and air conditioning. Other than the aforementioned heavily spiced meat-on- basmati rice plates, arguably the two most celebrated dishes of Somali cooking are a platter of similarly spice rubbed goat and a sweet and sour stir-fry of sorts called kay kay. Both can be found at nine-year old Jubba, located in a mostly non-commercial residential community, right by the busy Santa Teresa VTA light rail station. In that kay kay, seemingly two pounds beef cubes (called beef suqaar) with no gristle (often a stir-fry’s downfall) gets tossed with chapatti (like flatbread shreds), bananas, onions, about a pound of nicely softened broccoli and snap pears, and an extreme amount of sesame oil that will definitely leave you wanting plenty of water from the salt rush. Ultimately, it’s the banana that ends up as the over-arching flavoring agent. Beef suqaar, flatbread and banana? Who knew it could be a hit?
For the next specialty, goat comes as bone-in hunks, ranging from dry and flabby to fork tender. The meat itself doesn’t have the barnyard smirk that can make a Mexican birria specialist’s goat taste so polarizing and also so special. Jubba’s goat tastes of indifferent meat and the berbere spice mix doesn’t coat the meat with the same unabashed punch as at Safari Kitchen.
The main mode of eating at Jubba appears to be the chapatti wraps. It’s essentially a Somali burrito in size and just swaps out rice, beans and guacamole for onions and peppers joining tilapia, beef or chicken. The only reason to opt for this over the other platters is serving size. Yes, they’re more than enough for one but the platters are really for 2-3 people (a steal for $12-13). The Sports Plate gets two people two proteins on one tire-sized plate with basmati rice or spaghetti for $26 and seems perfectly geared to diners looking more for leftovers than anything else. Like with Ethiopia’s cuisine often having Italian components from its colonial history, the same is the case for Somalia. Spaghetti seems like a strange match for deftly spiced goat but it’s a diet staple — and we certainly saw several diners digging into their pile of spaghetti with beef suqaar. Yes, this is not your typical meatballs and marinara.
Our vote for platter accompaniment goes to the injera bread that is much thicker and a less tart than most versions at Bay Area Ethiopian restaurants (like the Italian influence, here’s another nod to the similarities of Ethiopian and Somali dining). But, the injera does have the same function (use your hands!) here as at any Ethiopian restaurant. Unlike in Ethiopia, though, the food is not served on the injera itself. Since most Somalian dishes aren’t curry or sauce based like in Ethiopia, you’ll end up using a fork and knife and rip off some injera as a palate cleanser.
No matter what entrée lies ahead, start with a samusa, fried to perfection with no hint of grease and a filling of ground beef and spices that come tumbling out dramatically after your initial bite. Mandasi, a sweet potato pastry that tastes and looks like a flattened yam beignet, has pretty little to recommend for it in the shadow of the samosa. It’s a harmless version of fried dough if that’s a needed part of your meal. For both, make sure to dunk the pastries in the medium hot green spice condiment that come on the side.
There’s a lot to love about this opposite of flashy family-run operation, from the food to the fact that decor is limited to a few woven objects on the wall, a placard of Somali crops and fruits and a TV on CNN by the entrance. It’s not an elaborate set-up but has a lot of heart and is clearly a local favorite with the African community. Diners stream in randomly to order, then savor, the free pour-yourself sweet tea that comes out blazing hot (use two espresso-sized paper cups!) and packs more sugar than the typical sweet tea on a porch in Mississippi. Somehow, its over the top quirky sweetness seems to taste just right when eating some kay kay in this far corner of San Jose.
It was an inauspicious start when we arrived at Miliki one recent weekday, wondering if the place was even open. There were no diners eating lunch. The menu outside only says that American diner-style food is served. Yet, somehow there has to be some of the Nigerian food that we ventured to Oakland’s Laurel District (it’s a stretch of MacArthur Blvd. by 580, southeast of Downtown) for, right? Noticing us stalling outside, the gracious waitress and mother of a co-owner, Enny Aregbe, came outside to say that only African food was available at that time.
You can sense our relief.
It turns out that the American food is served in the morning when chef Kirk Roberts runs the kitchen. Roberts previously owned Full House Cafe next door but it closed and became the ultra popular Sequoia Diner under new owners. Now for two years, Roberts has run essentially a permanent breakfast pop-up at Miliki (word of advice: for Nigerian food, come after 1pm to be sure it’s being served). So, as tempting as biscuits and gravy and bacon hash sound, we wanted fufu. And we got plenty of it.
Nigeria is a country of 186 million people, making it the largest country on the continent and over twice the size of second place Ethiopia. The country’s largest city, Lagos, is one of the fastest growing cities in the world, yet according to a study by the Financial Times, nearly 2/3 of the city lives in slums. It’s a city that represents the cultural and economic possibilities of a whole country on the western coast of Africa — and its struggles.
For whatever reason, be it lack of tourists visiting and craving the food or hard to find ingredients, Nigerian cuisine hasn’t made the big leap to the U.S., and certainly the Bay Area, like Moroccan and Ethiopian cuisines. But as Miliki will teach you, it’s an extensive cuisine full of huge flavor like you’d expect from a country of Nigeria’s size.
The core of the menu is based on hearty entrées that are customizable in a mix and match style (just wait for the Nigerian fast-casual concept, coming soon to the FiDi!). Diners choose an okele (starch), stew and meat. It’s confusing because the menu says that three meats can be served per stew, yet we only were given the option of one. One does indeed seem like plenty.
Goat served on the bone in the rustic, chunky tomato and spinach stew with mashed egusi (a melon seed), had a beautiful gamey flavor but lurked on the dry side texture-wise. It needed to bathe in the stew, fragrant in the earthy-herbal profile like a thoughtfully made marinara sauce with egusi looking and even tasting a bit like you added some Parmesan.
Our chosen okele for this was fufu, essentially a pile of mashed yams that has the cloying consistency of mochi and, as a dining companion correctly pointed out, tastes identical to Betty Crocker’s instant mashed potatoes. Fufu is pretty boring stuff, yet necessary for ripping and grabbing that goat meat (forks are discouraged but offered). It’s also the best known Nigerian diet staple, seen at practically every meal everywhere in the country, like baguettes in France.
The egusi was a sign of rewarding flavors to come. Dish after dish presented careful but forceful spicing. Even the seemingly banal scoop of rice on the combination platter scored with tomato, peppers and onions alongside flaky tilapia. That rice, by the way, is jollof rice — one of the key parts of Nigeria’s cuisine and very similar to what is called dirty rice in New Orleans. Every component lifts the other — the rice, fish and trio of smoky, slow-cooked beans, tender stewed greens, and sweet fried plantains. It’s the must-order at Miliki.
When it comes to spice, Miliki’s pepper soup had a sharp, pungent style of spice courtesy of the aggressive alligator pepper. Think of ash and Tabasco sauce combined. It’s weird. It’s not great. It’s not bad. The broth was too watery to stand up to tough beef and tender tripe (fish is probably the way to go). Try it once but chances are it won’t be a dish you come back again and again for. But you never know if you don’t try...
Black eyed pea fritters called akara, suya (beef skewers) and sweet, fried balls of dough, appropriately called “puff puff,” are the main appetizers. They seem more like hunger-satiating snack munchies to accompany the almost sugary non-alcoholic Malta Guinness beer from Nigeria or one of the various non-craft beer bottles available before heading towards the stews and starches.
Decor isn’t Miliki’s strength with a faded, worn look to the booths and tables, though some art on the walls and the front bar makes thing look like they get pretty exciting at some point. That exciting time would be Friday nights when a DJ takes over and Miliki offers a fun evening of music and food “to keep the community together” as Enny told us. That’s vital right now knowing the many issues facing Oakland, from gentrification to crime. Enny’s son Bayo started the restaurant almost eight years ago with his friend Ishmael Okunade and, together, three have helped steer the restaurant through some tough times.
Just a year ago, Miliki almost was part of that rapid gentrification when a landlord looked to replace it with a craft beer garden. Just look at the brunch lines at Sequoia Diner, the forthcoming opening of 4505 Meats in the retro Glenn’s Hot Dog location and the construction right outside of Miliki on MacArthur — the area is changing and it’s not hard to see the gentrification coming, for better or for worse. Luckily, we still have Miliki. And there’s plenty of fufu and pepper soup to sample because of that.
3725 MacArthur Blvd.
Oakland, CA 94619 [Map]
Ph: (510) 531-6970
Hours: Tue-Sun 8am- 8:30pm but Nigerian food starts roughly around noon; Closed Monday
Facebook: Miliki Restaurant
Price Range: $$ ($11-$15 per diner)
Tadu Ethiopian Kitchen
Outside of the couscous and tagines of Morocco, Ethiopia’s communal injera-based platters and strong cups of coffee from the country’s renowned beans is the best-known African cuisine in the U.S. Washington D.C. and Los Angeles have their own Little Ethiopia enclaves where avid diners visit the different Ethiopian spots and everyone has their particular favorite amidst stiff competition like we talk about dim sum in the Richmond or Mission burritos. It’s not quite the same in San Francisco. Oakland and Berkeley are home to some fantastic Ethiopian destinations as our guide will show you. The city has a handful of Ethiopian restaurants but for the most part, diners head across the Bay for their kitfo fix.
Except, at the two-and-a-half-year old Tadu, named for the owner’s grandmother and honoring her lifetime of warmth and love. Owner Elias Shawel, a former limousine driver, opened the restaurant because he couldn’t find a good place for kitfo. He definitely solved that issue.
Tadu is at the edge of the Tenderloin now. When it opened, Tadu was truly in the thick of it — a classic example of the rapid changes going on around this particular San Francisco neighborhood. Inside the restaurant, you’ll find orange splashed walls with Ethiopian art and maps, a semi-open kitchen and a central register where diners come and go every few minutes picking up to-go orders — a strange thing since this doesn’t seem like food that can travel well. Well, there is a kitfo sandwich. But you’re not coming to Tadu for a sandwich, are you? No, you’re here for the grand injera platters.
You can feel the childlike giddiness when one of the round platters arrives à la a pizza at the center of the table. This is a meal for everyone, from the solo diner to a party of six. Be it lunch or dinner, the entire meal sits on injera made in Oakland and driven back to Tadu daily. Injera covers the entire platter and additional rolled up injera is served on the side functioning as fork, knife, and spoon — heck, it might be the napkin and a water glass too if you’re really going for it. Bitter as a grapefruit, injera begs to be covered in other flavors, instead of being consumed on its own. Remember, it's a utensil. There are no off tastes but you won’t crave injera like a Josey Baker bread or Tartine’s country loaf.
Ethiopian cuisine is particularly great for vegetarian and vegan diners since the standout dish is the vegetarian sampler. The injera is covered by various spreads, dips and wots (stew-like curries. Azifa, a preparation of lentils fragrant with mustard seeds and jalapeño, wins big, while the misir wot (a lentil sauce with berbere spices) provides a nice dose of heat but isn’t much more than a pile of lentils. Buticha, mashed chickpeas, comes on a lettuce salad and could be a fine hummus at a party. The sautéed collard greens, known as gomen, are passable but far better when ordered with lamb since some of the meat’s juices rub off. When countless rolls of injera have been ripped, dunked and eaten, it’s the shiro wot (a dark purée of chickpeas, ginger, and tomatoes) and the refreshing alicha tikil gomen (precisely cut, turmeric-stained potatoes and carrots with fresh cabbage) that emerge as winners.
Kitfo is the other iconic dish you’ll see on the majority of tables at any Ethiopian restaurants. It’s essentially ultra buttery ground beef, best ordered raw like how it’d be consumed in Ethiopia. That being said, many diners hesitate and opt for it medium rare to medium but sadly the gamey funk and soft texture leaves. It becomes greasy hamburger meat. You have the option to liven things up with jalapeño and cheese. Skip the cheese (there’s enough butter already) but do go for the spice since ground beef on its own has little taste.
Cubes of chicken, lamb and beef known as “tibs” are the other main dish to know, beautifully seasoned with berbere spices and jalapenos. Diners can start with sambussas, filled with ground beef or lentils, but, trust us, you won’t need more than what comes on the injera. Just sip some of the thick and kind of bland telba (a flax seed and honey drink) or grab some more injera, and you’ll be more than content.
On the menu of the aforementioned Miliki, suya is a traditional beef skewer coated in a rub of myriad spices, chilies and crushed peanuts. At Uptown Oakland’s African and Caribbean fast-casual spot, Suya, “suya” is referred to as a West African spice rub. Will the real suya please stand up? The answer is: both. Suya is a term for a spice and that spice on grilled skewers of meat. In the case of Suya the restaurant suya is the spice rub.
Now that we’ve answered this question, here come a few more. Remember, this is the fast-casual world where customization is key. So the question isn’t just which protein but also which spice: Jamaican jerk or suya?
For our purposes, it was all about the suya and it truly is the highlight on beef, chicken, prawns, vegetables or tilapia (only suya spicing is allowed on the beef). The suya is an earthy, slightly sweet rub that slowly grows in heat to a point where a glass of water is needed but there’s no raging fire to put out. In contrast, the jerk seasoning on the chicken was tame.
We got ahead of ourselves. Protein and spice selection are step three. Step one for this fast-casual menu is method of eating: skewers, entrée salad or wrap? Most diners seem to stick to wraps because if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the fast-casual world, it’s that SF diners love anything in a wrap (see: Souvla, Sushirrito). Unfortunately, perfectly suya-spiced beef was lost amidst a filling of 95% lettuce mix and scattered raw mushrooms in the wrap. The suya spice worked about as well on nicely grilled prawns, while the jerk seasoning was surprisingly tame in contrast on chicken. I’d steer you towards the skewers with two sides but the grilled corn was weeping from dry kernels and a mushy grilled plantain would have been the nightmare of anyone who’s found a banana lost in their backpack a week later. Solution: opt for the salad since the sides are lacking and wraps need some tweaking.
Suya is a smart idea and one that was ahead of its time when husband-and-wife team Seun and Zain Oke (he’s from Nigeria, she’s from Oakland and attended Cal) saw the overlap of Caribbean and African cooking and decided together to package it as a student-friendly fast-casual concept. The space is bare other than a single West African painting but the vibe isn’t subdued. Bob Marley is on the stereo, after all. Suya is an interesting concept and one that is clearly a hit with East Bay diners. The original location is in Berkeley near the Cal campus. This second one was somewhat crowded on one recent weekday lunch hour with some groups sticking around to eat some jerk chicken and sneak in a Friday Corona treat, while others hustled back to Pandora and the other companies in this rapidly growing tech hub. The concept's popularity in this area recently led to the opening of a third Suya, just a few blocks away in the heart of downtown Oakland.
Strangely, for a fast-casual spot, conveniences and details are lacking. Diners have to ask for water, silverware or napkins. The Jamaican ginger beer tastes like straight sugar syrup, lacking any of the desired sharp ginger bite. But, hey don’t worry, just focus on the suya beef skewers and every little thing will be alright.
There’s no lacking decor at this Downtown Oakland Senegalese restaurant. Everywhere you look is something — a car, colorful posters, even ceiling art installations that look like clouds. Festive as an adjective for the atmosphere is putting it lightly. You’re going to have a good time. It’s a different type of good time than at the older sibling in SF’s Mission District, where the original Bissap Baobab is better known for dancing and late night drinks. You can get that weekends in Oakland, too, but lunch is only served in Oakland.
You can still get a hibiscus margarita and other fruit-spiked cocktails in the daytime or a more lunch-friendly bracing ginger and pineapple juice or kale, ginger, apple and carrot smoothie. In Oakland, it’s fully about the Senegalese cuisine. The Senegalese cuisine in turn, is really about a holy trinity of sauces (different than the holy trinity of ingredients in New Orleans cooking).
Mafe is a peanut stew that tastes more of unsalted nut butter than what you’re probably used to from a sweetened creamy jar of Jif. It coats cubes of lamb perfectly but is slightly on the awkward greasy side.
Yassa is for the mustard fans in the house, where the honey mustard-like base gets a necessary burst of acidity from lemon and works well coating a flaky filet of tilapia.
Most assertive is a nameless spicy coconut curry that has such a resolute coconut-forward taste, you won’t notice what protein it’s with. If, like this writer, you swear by coconut, this is the sauce for you. However, any subtleties of tilapia beneath it will be completely lost, so try to have it coat the rice and not the protein.
The focus on being a sauce-based cuisine is largely from the French colonial influence on Senegal, one of the few Francophone countries in Africa. It’s not a direct pipeline of Escoffier to Senegal but diners certainly can see and taste the connection. These are flavor-packed sauces that aren’t fussy and aren’t overly heavy on the stomach, like say a buttery béarnaise. Some additional spice could be welcome and that’s where the on-point pepper condiment comes in handy adding just the right jolt when you’re ready (don’t add too much and drink ginger juice at the same time!). It’s a fun type of cooking and great when things are kicked off with a Créole dish of spicy and jasmine rice filling a halved avocado or a clean, proper “tropical” salad of greens and citrus slices. That salad joins the three sauce preparations for a steal of a lunch deal running $12 to $13 and can feed two. That lunch platter also comes with perfectly fried plantains and rice (the couscous one time was clearly undercooked, so avoid it). It’s no secret why Oakland office workers try to sneak here for a vacation at lunch that will fill them up but not weigh them down and feel like they’re 3,000 miles from the cubicle.
The original Bissap Baobab just entered its third decade in business, an eternity in restaurant years, especially after a fire that closed it a few years ago and led the owners to seek out the Oakland location. The SF one is back and busy as ever. So, both sides of the Bay can count on good times and enjoyable, reliable Senegalese food at Bissap Baobab. It’s time for another round of hibiscus margaritas.
Mourad Lahlou and Eskender Aseged are the two Bay Area chefs from African nations who have reached the level of being household names for many Bay Area diners. What’s interesting is how neither is cooking anything traditional. Lahlou did cook traditional Moroccan with Californian influences at Aziza and now his namesake FiDi restaurant, Mourad, is really the inverse as a contemporary Californian restaurant with Moroccan elements.
While Mourad is a lavish dining room with soaring ceilings and chandeliers on the ground level of the spectacular gothic skyscraper on New Montgomery Street that also houses Yelp’s headquarters, Aseged is quietly cooking in the far southeast corner of the city. His restaurant, Radio Africa, opened along Third Street in the Bayview in 2012 and the expected movement of gentrification to the neighborhood following its lead hasn’t really happened as expected — yet, at least.
Inside Radio Africa, you’ll find an abundance of flora and fauna, cactus, communal tables, and ample natural light. It feels like you’re eating in a greenhouse, a contrast to the often frantic vibe outside the restaurant. That relaxed, virtuous vibe extends to Aseged’s plates.
The dishes are virtuous and simple with very basic embellishments in the fashion that Whole Foods and meal-kit deliveries are trying to promote (think Healthyish and holistic diets). There might be an African spice here and there, maybe a housemade chermoula condiment on one dish. Let’s be honest, though, it’s mostly yoga cuisine and that’s not a bad thing when you feel great and the food isn’t dull.
Wild salmon comes simply with quinoa and cooked spinach is a dish that could please both James Beard (perfectly cooked piece of fish and equally perfect quinoa) and Weight Watchers. An arugula salad with roasted beets had a few surprise bursts of early summer tomatoes, scattered goat cheese and a pesto sauce that tied everything together without becoming uncomfortably oily. It’s nothing trailblazing but also not just #anotherbeetsandgoatcheesesalad.
A chicken jambalaya has very little to do with the spicy tomato-based rice dish of New Orleans. The sauce is a lightly spiced pepper-base one mixed with wilted kale and long grain rice. There’s no shrimp. It’s just bite-size skinless chicken pieces that are one notch from being dry but saved by the well composed other parts on the plate. It’s not a perfect dish. It’s satisfying, however. It’s also a dish that makes you think about jambalaya being served as a rowdy good times touristy dish on Bourbon Street but has serious roots in the Low Country slaves and reaching further back to Africa pre-slave trade centuries ago.
What’s more important to note about Radio Africa than the food is the powerful story of Aseged himself. The chef hails from Ethiopia and escaped to Sudan before immigrating to the U.S. His big break came as a cook in the kitchen of Square One, Joyce Goldstein’s restaurant that for much of the 80s and 90s was one of the post-Chez Panisse second wave of Californian cuisine trailblazers with the likes of Boulevard, Stars and Zuni Cafe. Aseged worked front and back of the house elsewhere at the likes of Boulevard and Campton Place before fulfilling his Radio Africa dream as one of the pivotal early pop-ups in SF around the same time the likes of Mr. Pollo and Lazy Bear started. Now five years in, it’s clear the restaurant is a centerpiece of the neighborhood judging from everyone who stopped in for lunch and a (sweetened just right) hibiscus lemonade.
Aseged even gives a neighborhood shoutout on the beer front with the 3rd St. Pale Ale from Bayview’s year-old Laughing Monk Brewing, a neighborhood newcomer that followed Radio Africa’s lead and is seeing success at its tap room. See, Radio Africa is much more than just an enjoyable lunch of salmon and quinoa.
Most of the Moroccan restaurants in the city of San Francisco share three traits — they’re formal affairs open only for dinner (with belly dancing frequently on weekends), sport an intricate interior design, and are located in the Lower Nob Hill area around Polk Street.
The six-year old Aicha, started by a first-time restaurateur from the tech industry (long before that was the cliché it is today in 2017) only satisfies the latter of that trio. It is indeed open for lunch and its dark, warm space with lanterns dangling above the kitchen, Moroccan art pieces scattered on the walls cushions and low-back banquettes covered with sheets that provide a calm escape from the relentless bar crawl of Polk Gulch outside but hardly an ornate environment like at a ritzy Marrakech hotel. It feels a little musty, like a well-worn living room of an apartment where most of the apartment is an open kitchen and food storage.
The main standards of Moroccan cuisine make up Aicha’s menu, led by kebab-on rice “grillades” and 15 total choices for tagines and couscous plates.
Everything was enjoyable but seemed a tick off in some regard. A lamb shank tagine had a subdued broth and the lamb itself a bit on the overcooked side, missing the hoped for gaminess and fork-tender flakiness (and I wish the tagine itself was at least presented tableside). Bread with the tagine is limp and pale, like a cake-textured white bread (compared to the baguette at Cafe Zitouna mentioned below). The plump prunes on the tagine plate were the best part of the dish — not exactly what you’d hope for. A royal kebab platter provides an assortment of various meats that vary from being a juicy, rewarding kefta (ground beef and lamb) to fine but uninspiring (merguez and chicken) to being clearly left on the grill too long (beef). We should mention the accompanying rice and salad (with craisins and olives!) were a step above the norm. However, even the tea just didn’t have the mint intensity that often is found at similar establishments.
The reasons to highly recommend Aicha are how the dishes that show Moroccan cuisine’s classic intense sweet meets savory contrast are the ones that thrive. Do you like Cinnamon Toast Crunch? Then don’t think twice about a side order of the cinnamon and sugar dusted couscous with regular and golden raisins. This is not a subtle dish in any way and it’s hard not to love its sweet-edged rustic sensibility.
Whatever you’re main part of the meal is, start with the basteeya, Morocco’s version of a warm protein-filled pastry coated with cinnamon and sugar. Aicha’s version is right on par with the best that Mourad Lahlou has offered at Mourad and Aziza. Saffron, turmeric and ginger come billowing out with the smoke when you crack the flaky phyllo crust and have a first bite of the moist chicken. There’s a lot going on. And, the portion is generous (keep in mind it’s an appetizer!). Each bite is a thrilling moment. Of course, couscous, tagines and kebabs get all the attention. Heck, Moroccan mint tea even is more talked about in most dining circles. This basteeya will remind you that it deserves a place on the table, as well. Just make room for the main courses because Aicha’s small tables’ space gets filled up really quickly.
It was almost fate. Just a few moments after discussing why restaurant writers never start reviews with dessert, here came a complimentary dessert that sounded humble and seemed like a nice gesture that will usually end in a ceremonial couple of respectful bites. It proved to be one of the essential dishes of any African cuisine in the Bay Area. The dessert is called basboussa, an orange blossom water spiked semolina cake topped with pistachios that ultimately tastes like a floral-tinged baklava with the texture of a syrup-soaked Belgian waffle. After a series of tagines and couscous platters, it’s hard to imagine diners yearning for dessert. Well, please take our advice — save room. Or, eat dessert first. Trust us. This is why dessert is mentioned first for this Moroccan-Tunisian restaurant in Lower Nob Hill.
With spartan white walls, bare topped utilitarian tables, Paris bistro wicker chairs and a diner-style open kitchen running the length of the room with a counter of a couple antique Moroccan cooking vessels serving as the lone decoration, Cafe Zitouna can’t exactly be called a grande dame in anything but age. The main design point is the abundant sunlight streaming in from the windows along Polk Street.
Design doesn’t matter here. There are no belly dancers here, either. Cafe Zitouna is one of the longtime stalwarts of Northern African cooking in San Francisco and screams if the confidence that only a longtime neighborhood fixture can boast. You’ll find many of the classic Moroccan standards, like the soothing lentil soup, harira, that soothes upon first scoop but needs a few dashes of the housemade harissa condiment to become fully realized. In the daytime, the owner Najib Rebia is busy making couscous himself in giant bowls at a table on one side of the restaurant. That is your cue that couscous is mandatory and indeed it is — fluffy to the point of almost dissolving on the palate. A host of soft, almost velvety vegetables (carrots, turnips, zucchini, potatoes, bell peppers) sit in a thin tomato-like broth and get ladled into the couscous on individual plates. Again, harissa is needed to add some pizazz but most importantly, try the couscous on its own. Couscous comes with all sorts of meats and fish, as well, like a housemade merguez that has the right perky texture but lacks the smoke-spice balance of its peers in the city (most notably at 4505).
While Aicha missed on some details, every corner seems to be thought out by Cafe Zitouna — remarkable for a restaurant staffed by Rebia in the front-of-house and a single chef in the kitchen when we visited and are told that is usually the case. The mint tea here comes with sugar and is already lightly sweetened right at the perfect level. You’ll be flying off the walls but not getting a sugar-induced toothache. Every table gets crusty fresh baguette, first for dunking in olive oil, then the harira and finally the tagine sauces. Between the couscous and this baguette, don’t even dream of bypassing carbs at this place.
Like Aicha, Cafe Zitouna is a strictly Halal restaurant. There is a wide range of diners who visit Cafe Zitouna, from older regulars coming to tote several doggy bags for subsequent meals to the exploring types curious what this version of basteeya (with egg) is like to guests coming directly from the neighboring mosque on Sutter Street.
But what makes Cafe Zitouna stand out are the half dozen items from Tunisia, Rebia’s homeland, that lean heavily on aggressive, brighter spices. Oh, and, everything seems to have an egg on it. Mediterranean and French colonial flavors, so there are lots of bell peppers, tomatoes and capers, along with lighter spices like parsley and thyme instead of the darker berbere spice blends. Note the olive oil on tables and how it’s used for cooking meats. Tunisian salads are bright and light, like in taktuka boasting the abrupt anise notes of caraway seed with bell peppers, tomatoes and onions. For something hearty from the Tunisian repertoire, look to the tomato-based tagines with kufta meatballs or merguez that are nothing like the sweet and savory tagine combination so popular in next door Morocco.
If you’re thinking this seems a little like ground meat and marinara, well, you’re not far off. The quirky Tunisian specialty that can only be found here is a crepe called breek with a ready for Instagram soft yolk egg in the center. It’s filled with tuna, potatoes and capers, a nod towards the Mediterranean coast Tunisia borders. A finishing squeeze of lemon is yet another warm weather, coastal element and a necessary one to round out the breek. Start with breek, have some lively conversation over couscous and tea, then finish with basboussa, and get lost in a meal of Morocco, Tunisia and warm hospitality. You’ll be full, you’ll have had a great time and you’ll have learned a lot about new flavors and places. Isn’t this what dining out is all about?
1201 Sutter St.
San Francisco, CA 94109 [Map]
Ph: (415) 673-2622
Hours: Tue-Thu and Sat-Sun, 11:30am-9pm; Fri, 2pm-9pm
Facebook: Cafe Zitouna
Price Range: $$ ($15-$20 per diner)
Yelp: Cafe Zitouna