Out of Africa
Two local restaurants transport the sights, smells and flavors of Africa to the Crescent City
Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.
If you’ve caught a spicy, exotic scent wafting in New Orleans’ air, it could be a harbinger of a culinary trip to Africa. Today, it’s possible to explore the diverse flavors of that far away continent without ever leaving home.
Dakar NOLA’s Chef Serigne Mbaye’s story borders on mythical. Born in Harlem, as a child he endured almost 10 years of abuse and starvation at a Senegalese boarding school before returning to New York City for high school. Alone there, Mbaye worked two dishwashing jobs to survive before graduating with honors. In those restaurant kitchens he discovered a passion for food.
When he traveled back to Senegal to explore his culinary roots, a chance meeting on the return trip changed Mbaye’s life forever.
While waiting at the airport, he met Cliff Hall of New Orleans Fish House. After hearing Mbaye’s story, Hall insisted, “You have to come to New Orleans!” He facilitated a job for Mbaye at Commander’s Palace, where Mbaye rapidly rose to sous chef.
Mbaye marveled at the deep cultural similarities between Creole and Senegalese food.
“The dishes that you eat here, we also have in Africa,” he exclaimed. “We have an okra soup, soupoukandia, that’s much like gumbo. You have jambalaya and we eat jollof rice. Our puff-puffs are just like beignets.”
Determined to share those close cultural ties, Mbaye began hosting pop-up dinners, and fate intervened again.
“I had never seen African food paired with wine,” Effie Richardson remembered. “I was shocked by his skill, level of prep and intense work ethic. I saw the way his food brought joy.”
Taking a break from her pediatric dentistry practice, Richardson began working with Mbaye, and 14 months later, they opened Dakar NOLA on Magazine Street. There, guests experience Mbaye’s modern take on Senegalese cuisine expressed through a seven-course meal in an exquisite setting that celebrates West African culture.
Across town on Bayou Road, Prince Lobo and his family share another side of Africa’s culture. Prince’s mother, Ethiopian-born Dr. Biruk Alemayehu was a Southern University professor and father, Jaimito Lobo, worked in virology until Alemayehu called the family together at Christmas in 2018.
“No one is presenting Ethiopian food to New Orleans. If we don’t, who will?” she declared.
Despite having no previous restaurant experience, four months later, the family opened Addis NOLA in a tiny space on Broad Street. When the pandemic shutdown occurred, they resolved to quarantine together there, one of the city’s first to convert to takeout.
“We continued cooking, serving our food to hospital workers, fellow restaurateurs, anyone who made their way to our door,” Prince Lobo said. They made many fans in the process.
Today, those efforts are richly rewarded at Addis NOLA’s new home on Bayou Road. With almost twice the space, the restaurant features an authentic Gojobet, a thatched roof traditional dwelling outfitted with red velvet seats. There is a handwashing station in the dining room, as Ethiopian food is meant to be eaten entirely by hand with injera, a soft, spongy flatbread used as an edible utensil. A full cocktail bar includes specialty drinks like the Woo, a gin martini that features Tej, an ancient Ethiopian honey wine that Prince makes himself.
“This sparkling gold elixir was the original wine of the world. It’s like a delightful dessert wine with the strength of a bourbon,” Prince Lobo proclaimed.
Coffee culture is such a vital part of Ethiopia, people gather at least three times a day to share the rich, hot brew. The Addis NOLA experience now includes a traditional coffee ceremony with green coffee beans roasted onstage before passing through the dining room, scenting the air.
In 2020, when times were tough on Broad Street, Prince Lobo would spontaneously shout, “Addis NOLA! Wooooo!” You’ll hear that impromptu call now on Bayou Road. He explained, “The woo is an open declaration to the universe that our family is here to feed and nurture the people any way we can.”
With such authentic experiences now available, New Orleans’ African connection is stronger than ever. Take your tastebuds on a journey there soon.
Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, “Louisiana Eats!” Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.