When catching up with recently re-opened African Chop downtown a few weeks back, it was stumbled upon that a short hop over the Olympic Blvd. Bridge would turn you up at another Cameroonian-run establishment. The city’s newest African restaurant had chosen to take over the space of Puertos del Pacifico on Soto Street and set up shop in Boyle Heights.
The interior still has much of the bright blue paint up on the walls of its former tenant, and their neon beer signs in the windows. Dusty margarita glasses can be seen on shelves over the kitchen, but as of yet the alcohol program is still being created and probably awaits the more favorable days of 2021.
The namesake of the restaurant, Dorothy Wanki or Mama D. herself, has been running a restaurant just outside of Washington D.C. for many years and at the time of this visit was off to Cameroon to procure necessary ingredients for her and her daughter Claudia, who is the chef of this new spot. When asked about her mother, it was mentioned she is “very picky” and could not allow the substitution of some important items, which often happens out of necessity in the city’s kitchens serving the traditional foods of countries far away.
If you had ever been to Puertos del Pacifico you will remember a spacious dining room with light pouring in during the day. As restaurants have been forced to trim their operations to takeout only, the boisterousness that could be on offer here has not arrived yet, but there is West African music from the French-speaking countries playing if you happen to come in and wait for an order.
One of the ingredients that Mama D. brings from back home is the green called ndoleh used in the dish of the same name. It has a unique bitterness that cannot be replicated by spinach or something similar, often the case here in the states. For this reason, the ndole ($17, above) at Mama D’s is a must try and uniquely Cameroonian.
It can be served with a couple different choices of meat and side, but in her home country Chef Claudia says you will see it most with shrimp and it goes best with a side of fried plantains. Although the ndole is stewed with peanuts, it remains intensely (albeit pleasantly) bitter and her recommendation of the slightly sweet plantains is a good one.
For now at least the menu is succinct, focuses on the favorites, and goes straight for Cameroon. Others interested in learning more should also try achu, a dish of pounded taro and mixed meat smoked beef and cow foot popular in the northwest of the country. On this first occasion, it was desired to try the goat meat pepper soup ($17, above), only sampled from Nigerian restaurants before.
Cameroon’s neighbor to the west and home of more people than any other nation in Africa has some chefs that like to melt your face off with their pepper soups of goat and fish, but Mama D’s version only makes you start to feel an undertone of heat about halfway through the bowl, unless you request it to be made with plenty of habaneros. It is complex and intensely rich and warming, serves nicely with rice, and should have at least a bit more of that pepper on the next order.
Mama D’s African Cuisine, 1240 S. Soto Street, Boyle Heights.