Sometimes the best food can be found where you would least expect it. Case in point: Soleil's African Cuisine, improbably tucked away in a frog-themed bluegrass pub, where you'll find some of the tastiest African food in the Bay Area.
Walk into Alameda's Frog and Fiddle, and on the right side of the room you'll see what seems like a typical neighborhood pub: a honey-toned wooden bar with beer logos and quirky amphibious décor. On the left side, a warmly hued dining area adorned with African art. But don't let the dichotomous décor fool you: The crowds that gather here are drawn by the appetizing aromas of onions, ginger and spice emanating from the small kitchen window, behind which chef-owner Soleil Banguid turns out everything from Tanzanian-style coconut fish to Nigerian egusi chicken.
Soleil's African Cuisine truly spans all of Africa. But it is a near-impossible task for any restaurant to do justice to the cuisines of an entire continent, so Soleil only has a few offerings from Ethiopia and North Africa, cuisines which abound in the Bay Area. Instead, Soleil's skews more heavily toward Central and West Africa -- and does a very fine job of it.
As a boy growing up in Congo (Central Africa), Banguid stayed in the kitchen, learning to cook at the side of his mother, while his friends and brothers dashed outside to play soccer.
The hallmarks of "mom's cooking" are
One dish worth trying is the ndole ($13.50), a stew made of bitterleaf, which is the national dish of Cameroon. At Soleil's, the ndole combines bitterleaf and spinach, and it is slow cooked with minced raw peanuts until the peanuts plump up and take on a soft, almost cheesy consistency. The result is hearty and thick, with a pleasing hint of bitterness. It usually comes with chunks of chicken, but like most entrees at Soleil's, it can be made vegetarian upon request.
Another hard-to-find offering is the saka-saka, a dish that is especially popular in the Congo. It is made with cassava leaves ($12 vegan, $14 with a side of seared tilapia fillet), a spinachlike green, and simmered with onion, eggplant and garlic. African cuisine can be a bit oily for American tastes (generous use of oil is a way of showing honor to guests), and saka-saka is one example. It is cooked for so long that traces of palm oil, which is usually red, becomes a verdant green, and seeps unctuously at the bottom
One of the most popular entrees is the smoky bone-in goat stew ($15). This is a goat dish even for "non-goat people"; the stew, which simmers for four hours, has the muskiness of goat, but its deep mahogany sauce still retains a certain freshness from the tomato. The daily specials are also well-liked and can range from yassa salmon to jerk chicken to salt cod stew.
The restaurant has quite a few seafood options, including whole fish (grilled or fried) as well as Tanzanian fish ($13), generous fillets of tilapia that have been confidently seasoned and pan-seared till deep brown. It is bathed in a coconut milk sauce, and its natural sweetness and velvety richness provide a delightful foil. Like most of the entrees, the sauce is very flavorful but does not have a lot of heat. (You can ask for hot sauce on the side.)
And of course, no Pan-African restaurant could get away without serving peanut sauce ($13), a staple throughout West and Central Africa. This iconic dish is prepared in as many ways as there are cooks, and Soleil's version is on the lighter, thinner side, with flavors of roasted groundnut and bits of tomato and greens. It's not too heavy or greasy -- a brighter take that expresses Banguid's fresh and healthful approach.
Rice, which comes playfully topped with frizzled yam shards, is the standard accompaniment for the peanut sauce and for the other stews and gravy-rich entrees. For a small extra charge ($3) you can substitute fufu, a dense, smooth ball of pounded cassava with a slightly glutinous texture that provides a stick-to-your-ribs adjunct to the plush, savory sauces. Entrees also usually come with a few chunks of fried plantains.
For those really wanting to get their plantain on, plantains can also be substituted for rice ($3 extra) or ordered as an appetizer ($5). Soleil's plantains are pitch-perfect, with a crisp caramelized exterior that gives way to a tender, dense and sweet interior. The appetizer version comes with a side of Zippichilidippi Sauce, the restaurant's own sweet-hot condiment.
The sauce also accompanies other starters, such as the Ethiopian samosas ($6): three tall, crisp pyramids filled with chopped carrot, peas and onions, and a hint of heat. They were fine, as was the spicy, thick Moroccan hummus appetizer ($7, served with pita), but we would rather save our appetites for the entrees -- and the banana beignets ($5).
The beignets are one of two desserts at Soleil's, and can be easily shared by three people. Banana purée is mixed right into the sweet batter, and plopped into hot oil by the spoonful, resulting in greaseless, airy orbs with a lovely banana flavor throughout. They are served piping hot with a dash of powdered sugar, and hot sauce if you want it.
Over dessert, when most of the dinner crowd of families and neighbors had dispersed, TJ Banguid, Soleil's warm and outgoing wife, who works the front of the house, sat down to chat with us. Later Soleil emerged from the kitchen to mingle with guests, and we ended up talking about Congolese music, African politics and, of course, food. At the end of the night, we ended up feeling like long-lost friends who were invited over to their house for dinner -- or well-loved kids whose mother spoils them with home cooking.
Soleil's African Cuisine
" * * *
FOOD: * * *
AMBIENCE: * * * ½
SERVICE: * * ½
WHERE: 1544 Webster St., Alameda
CONTACT: 510-228-6747, http://www.soleilsafricancuisine.com
HOURS: 4-9 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays
VEGETARIAN: A few vegan and vegetarian options, including Rwandan bean stew with coconut milk; most regular dishes can be made vegetarian.
BEVERAGES: Wine, beer and cocktails from the Frog and Fiddle bar can be ordered at the table.
RESERVATIONS: Accepted for parties of five or more
NOISE LEVEL: Loud, particularly when there is live music
PARKING: Metered street parking
KIDS: Kids will find plenty of options, such as rice and plantains, rice with coconut sauce or tilapia without sauce.
PLUSES: Don't miss the saka-saka and anything with coconut milk-based sauce, save room for the banana beignets.
MINUSES: Service slows when the restaurants gets crowded.
DATE OPENED: December
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