A few weeks ago I saw a post on Chowhound indicating that the Grand Avenue bar Room 389 was serving Cameroonian food, of all things, on Tuesday nights. "Anyone try it?" the curious tipster had asked. Apparently, no one had.
And so, on a recent Tuesday, I decided to go check it out.
But Cameroonian food? I don't know the first thing about it. And since this was a spur-of-the-moment thing, I didn't even have a chance to do a requisite Google search, which would have revealed that chef Malong Pendar, the man behind Cameroonian Tuesdays at Room 389, used to run the now-shuttered South Berkeley restaurant A Taste of Africa.
Anyway, I'd read up on all of that later. So it was with uncertain expectations that I showed up at Room 389. A sign out front promised "A Taste of Africa" — still that name — and next to it was a big picture menu listing a bunch of dishes with unfamiliar names: sule, ewole, ndole, nkule. Everything ending with an "e."
Inside the bar, it was hoppin' at 9:30 on a Tuesday night — a packed house, the DJ spinning some old-school hip-hop groove. I was worried because I had been told the food usually sells out by around nine, but I found Pendar in the corner, surrounded by aluminum catering pans, still slinging out plates of food.
"Malong," he said by way of introduction. "You want the chicken or the fish?"
I settled on the fish. Twelve bucks bought me a paper plate piled high with food — no joke, literally as much food as one can fit on a paper plate. Easily enough to feed two or three hungry people. I found a table and hunkered down.
In short, the food was great.
The fish turned out to be fried tilapia, and what really stood out was its smokiness, a little like Chinese canned dace. I loved how savory and unapologetically fishy it was.
Then there was ewole: tender, gently garlicky sautéed spinach that reminded me of Indian saag. There was nsoke: perfectly cooked black-eyed peas with a muskiness that I couldn't quite pin down. There was ndole: a savory peanut-spinach stew — the national dish of Cameroon, it turns out — that had a slightly curd-like consistency. A heaping mound of Jallof rice was like a fluffy and fragrant rice pilaf. And there was nkule: wonderfully moist and gingery mashed yams.
The yams, in particular, were what made the whole meal remind me, oddly enough, of Thanksgiving: a bountiful, mostly-vegetarian Cameroonian Thanksgiving plate, if there was such a thing.
I would be remiss not to mention Pendar's homemade hot sauce — "only for professionals," he said, patting the pot affectionately before ladling me a scoop of the intensely smoky and complex — and seriously hot — concoction. And no wonder: It was made up almost entirely of habañero peppers, roasted to give it that smoky edge.
Room 389 co-owner Jamie Bernal said he first became a fan of Pendar's food fifteen years ago, back when A Taste of Africa was just a truck selling food at the Berkeley Flea Market on weekends. Since his restaurant closed two years ago, Pendar has been doing mostly catering work, plus this little pop-up kitchen at the bar. Every Tuesday night, dinner is served at around six or seven. Everything usually sells out by nine or ten.
Originally, I had a ton of questions I wanted to ask Pendar, but as it turned out, he's an awfully difficult guy to get on the phone. After seven or eight failed attempts, I decided I'd be doing you a bigger service by simply saying this: Find your way to Room 389 on a Tuesday night. Bring cash and a big appetite. Wash it all down with a cold beer.
The Return of Bites Off Broadway
City of Oakland approval pending, this Friday, May 11, will mark the return of Bites Off Broadway, the weekly convocation of gourmet food trucks in front of the Studio One Art Center, located at 365 45th Street.
The brainchild of community organizer Karen Hester, the event last took place back in October. Since then, Oakland has instituted an interim policy allowing mobile "food pod" events on a limited basis — a stopgap measure until the city council can come up with a more permanent solution. Barring any setbacks, Bites Off Broadway will be one of the first pods to launch under the new policy.
According to Hester, the main holdup — and biggest frustration — has simply been waiting for her permit to come through. It's a process that's taken more than two months since she put in the initial application, and — as of press time — she still hasn't received the permit. Nevertheless, based on conversations she's had with city officials, Hester feels confident she'll be ready to launch as planned on Friday, from 5:30 p.m. until 8:30 p.m., with an initial lineup of six trucks: Tina Tamale, Doc's of the Bay, Nick's Breakfast Truck, Conklin's Catering, Go Streatery, and Annakoot Indian Street Food Truck.
It's lawn seating, so lawn chairs and blankets are advised.