Early on a Friday evening at The Frog and Fiddle, a bluegrass and country western bar on the west side of Alameda, the crowd skewed middle-aged and white, and the overall vibe was low-key and blandly casual — more suburban watering hole than honky-tonk. We'd come because we heard there was African food to be had, but at first glance there was little about the place that felt African, aside from the alluring scent of coconut milk and unidentified spice wafting in the air.
This bit of cognitive dissonance has been present ever since Soleil's African Cuisine took over the kitchen this past December. Chef Soleil Banguid and his wife, TJ, were veterans of the local farmers' market circuit and already had a successful catering business. Presented with the opportunity to run a permanent pop-up restaurant, the Banguids created an ambitious menu, replacing the standard pub fare The Frog and Fiddle was serving with things like Tanzanian coconut fish and Congolese saka-saka.
The only question that remained was whether the bar's regular clientele would buy into the new regime.
"Some people walk in, and they kind of give you this look like, 'Where are the hamburger and the fries?'" TJ conceded. "But believe it or not, I've never had anyone walk out."
Having eaten at the restaurant twice now, I'm not surprised at its success: The service, headed by TJ herself, is warm and welcoming; the prices are reasonable; and the food, with few exceptions, is nothing short of delicious.
Soleil hails from the Congo, TJ from neighboring Cameroon. But their menu is pan-African in scope. The idea, TJ explained, was to represent the entire continent — to introduce American diners to the cuisines of small African countries (Senegal and Rwanda and Uganda) that might not all get to have their own restaurant.
So during one visit, there was a daily special of Senegalese yassa: a pan-fried skin-on rainbow trout that was served with a bit of sautéed spinach and an addictive, intensely mustardy caramelized-onion sauce. It was a dish that wouldn't have seemed out of place at a French bistro, no doubt a product of Senegal's colonial history.
Another time, I ordered the peanut stew, a staple throughout West and Central Africa. Soleil's version was chicken (flavorful skin-on thigh meat) served in a thick and creamy peanut sauce — one of the richest and most savory peanut sauces I've had.
Better yet was the saka-saka, a dish of slow-cooked cassava leaves, which tasted like a wild and soulful cousin of boiled spinach: earthy, musky, redolent of some mysterious spice. Except Soleil doesn't add any spices — just aromatics (garlic, onion, etc.) and, at the end, some peanut butter and palm oil, which gives the dish its characteristic smoky quality. After four hours, the cassava leaves are basically cooked down to mush, but it's some of the most delicious mush you'll ever eat. You can get the saka-saka with fish or just by itself as a vegetarian entrée.
But if you have the chance to try only one item, order the Tanzanian fish: A perfectly grilled tilapia fillet served in a mellow coconut-milk-and-spinach sauce that's bright-orange from the addition of puréed tomatoes and freshly ground spices. It's a stunningly tasty dish that's both homey and elegant.
Each entrée comes with a small serving of fried plantain wedges — coated with a light and savory batter, so the overall effect isn't excessively sweet — and a mound of fragrant jollof rice. You can also sub out the rice and replace it with couscous or fufu — doughy starch balls (made, at Soleil's, from yam or plantain flour) that are meant to be eaten with any soupy or saucy dish.
Whatever you order, make sure you ask for some of Soleil's homemade piri piri hot sauce on the side. Don't be deceived by its golden-mustardy hue — the stuff is made almost entirely of slow-simmered habanero peppers and packs serious heat.
Compared to the entrées, the appetizers at Soleil's are relatively boring. The Congolese avocado salad didn't seem especially Congolese — it was just a simple mixed salad with an apple cider vinaigrette. The spicy Moroccan hummus tasted mostly sweet, not spicy as advertised. The best of the bunch were Ethiopian samosas, which were delightfully crunchy little things — but with a humdrum pea-and-carrot filling.
Even though these items weren't especially exciting, their inclusion on the menu makes the restaurant surprisingly kid-friendly — as do the crowd-pleasing banana beignets that Soleil's serves for dessert. (Save the stomach room: For five dollars, you get a comically large portion of these piping-hot, sugar-dusted treats.)
The Banguids are in the process of expanding their menu, and several promising additions to the appetizer section should be close to ready by this printing: spicy piri piri shrimp, a peanut soup, and a French-influenced mushroom tart.
As good as the food is, it's hard to get around the feeling that The Frog and Fiddle is an odd spot to be eating it. But halfway through my first meal, I decided this was part of the restaurant's charm.
It was as though I was watching a tableau of uniquely American cultural exchange: An early-summer baseball game unfolded lazily on the television in one corner. A badass bearded dude sat by himself rocking a shades-and-sandals combo — like he'd just stepped off the set of The Big Lebowski. Then the band for that night started warming up, the lead singer belting out a bluesy version of the old Beatles tune: Yes, baby, you can drive my car.
Meanwhile, at every table, diners chowed down happily on saka-saka and fufu and goat stew and Cameroonian ndole — food that was lovingly prepared by a Congolese native who started his culinary career in this country as a dishwasher at a tiny restaurant in Iowa City, Iowa.
What could be more American than that?