Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Your Tuesday Night Food Adventure: Cameroonian Food at Room 389

by Luke Tsai
Tue, May 1, 2012 at 1:52 PM

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, or about the cuisine of West Central Africa in general. 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. The Express ran a review a couple years ago.

Sign outside Kitchen 389 on a Tuesday night.
  • Sign outside Kitchen 389 on a Tuesday night.
Anyway, I’d read up on all of that later. So it’s with uncertain expectations that I show up at Room 389 (located at 389 Grand Ave., natch) at 9:30 on a Tuesday night. A sign out front promises “A Taste of Africa” — still that name — and next to it is 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’s hoppin’ — a packed house, the DJ spinning some old-school hip-hop groove. I’m worried because I’ve been told the food usually sells out by around nine, but have no problem finding Pendar standing behind a little table in the corner, surrounded by aluminum catering pans, still slinging out plates of food.

“Malong,” he says by way of introduction, flashing a winning smile. “You want the chicken or the fish?”

I settle on the fish. Twelve bucks (though the sign outside said $13) buys me a paper plate piled high with food — like, no joke, literally as much food as one can fit on a paper plate. Easily enough to feed two or three hungry people. I find a table and hunker down.

In short, the food is great. It’s dark in here (you know, like bars are dark), so I can’t really see what I’m eating. But the fish turns out to be fried tilapia, and what really stands out is its smokiness, a little like Chinese canned dace. I love how deeply savory and unapologetically fishy it is.

A shot of my half-eaten plate: an entire meals worth of leftovers.
  • A shot of my half-eaten plate: an entire meal's worth of leftovers.
Then there is ewole: tender, gently garlicky sauteed spinach that reminds me of Indian saag. There’s nsoke: perfectly cooked black-eyed peas with a muskiness to them I can’t quite pin down. There’s ndole: a savory peanut-spinach stew — the national dish of Cameroon, it turns out — that has a slightly curd-like consistency. There’s a heaping mound Jallof rice — a “stewed parboiled rice” that’s like a particularly fluffy and fragrant rice pilaf. And there’s nkule: wonderfully moist and gingery mashed yams.

I think it was the yams, especially, that made the whole meal remind me, oddly enough, of Thanksgiving: a bountiful, mostly-vegetarian Cameroonian Thanksgiving plate, if there were such a thing.

Oh, and 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.

This is some of the best hot sauce I’ve had, intensely smoky and complex — and seriously hot, lingering in the back of the throat. And no wonder: It’s made up almost entirely of habañero peppers, roasted to give it that smoky edge.

Room 389 co-owner Jamie Bernal told me he’s been a fan of Pendar’s food for about 15 years, back when Taste of Africa was just a truck selling food at the Berkeley Flea Market on weekends. Since Pendar’s restaurant closed two years ago, he’s been doing mostly catering work, plus this little pop-up kitchen at the bar.

“It adds atmosphere. It adds an element of hominess,” Bernal said of the collaboration. He noted that many of Room 389’s Tuesday customers come specifically for the food. They may not even end up buying a drink. Dinner is served at around six or seven — whenever Pendar finishes getting set up — and everything usually sells out by nine or ten.

Originally, I had a ton of questions I wanted to ask Pendar: about the transition from running a restaurant to catering, about how he feels about carrying on the culinary traditions of his parents’ native Cameroon, about what training he’s had as a chef.

But as it turns out, Pendar’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 some cash and a big appetite. Wash everything down with a cold beer.

You're welcome.

Got tips or suggestions? Email me at Luke (dot) Tsai (at) EastBayExpress (dot) com. Otherwise, keep in touch by following me on my (brand spankin’ new) Twitter account, @theluketsai, or simply by posting a comment. I'll read ‘em all.

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