Favorite neighborhood: Chulla’s Cafe | comstock magazine


Chulla’s coffee

Address:
4845 Watt Ave
North Highlands, California

Call: (916) 333-4851

Website:
chullascafe.com

Chulla’s coffee

Address:
4845 Watt Ave
North Highlands, California

Call: (916) 333-4851

Website:
chullascafe.com

Jambalaya always tells a story. The rice-based dish takes its name from a word meaning “mishmash” in Occitan dialect
from southern France, and it bears the influences of the many groups of people who settled in the bayou region of Louisiana in the 18th and 19th centuries. This story is usually implied: the diner must draw their own conclusions about the French andouille sausage, the Spanish notes in the pepper base, the family resemblance to West African jollof rice. But at Chulla’s Cafe in the North Highlands, jambalaya’s global roots are purposefully on display, as part of the restaurant’s educational project.

Chulla’s jambalaya isn’t the tomato-red, sausage-topped pilaf one might order in New Orleans. Here, the rice is served on the side rather than tossed, to further emphasize the dish’s resemblance to the seafood-rich stews of the West African coast. The resemblance is most distinct in Chulla’s “jungle jambalaya”, thickened with okra cooked to the simmering edge of dissolution. A staple of Creole cuisine, okra is a living relic of the transatlantic slave trade; it was brought to the Americas by West African slaves.

Chulla’s jambalaya seasoning also straddles the Atlantic. The flavor comes in waves – first a marine note like a seaside breeze, reminiscent of the fragrant crawfish stews of Sierra Leone, then a static tang of Cajun spice. The menu calls the blend “Coastal Infused Cuisine”, echoing the slogan on the front windows: “Coastal Infused Cuisine”. It’s a clue to the cosmopolitan philosophy behind the one-year-old restaurant.

“We researched what is common (in cuisines across the Middle East, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean), what is popular and what people need. ”

Tamba Keifa, Owner, Chulla’s Cafe

Tamba Keifa, the owner of Chulla’s Cafe, says he researched the cuisines of coastal communities around the world, including the Middle East, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, to develop his concept. “We researched what is common, what is popular and what people need,” he says, noting that regions share certain flavor and ingredient profiles due to trade and migration patterns, both free and forced. “But I’m not sure I have the right culinary jargon,” he hesitates. “I’m just using my globalist terminology to describe these things.”

Rice and beans are a staple in many cuisines that Chulla’s Cafe is inspired by.

Keifa speaks like a political scientist because he is. Born to a Sierra Leonean mother and Guinean father, he moved to California in 1998 to continue his education and escape Sierra Leone’s grueling civil war. He earned two bachelor’s degrees from UC Davis in political science and African and African American studies, then traveled to Sacramento state to complete a master’s degree in higher education leadership and political studies. Today he is an Assistant Instructor for the Los Rios Community College District in Political Science and History.

But he always had an entrepreneurial spirit. Back in Africa, he ran small nightclubs – “not on my behalf, because my father would kill me,” he says, adding that his goal was still to open a restaurant. “In West Africa, when you say you want to be a cook, your parents will say, ‘Are you crazy?’ He said. “Cooking is not the best way out of poverty.

Keifa was therefore a prudent entrepreneur. It took him seven years to develop a business plan and find lenders and homeowners who believed in it. He was rejected for locations in Roseville and Folsom before finding space in the North Highlands. “We had the means to build, but they did not allow us because we have no written record” of experience, he says. “There is a discouragement of new concepts like this, so we were really brave to launch it and see where it can be. When the restaurant opened in June 2020, it had new challenges to overcome. “But we have a structure that is adaptive,” says Keifa. “We opened in the middle of a pandemic, and we still have five stars (on Yelp).”

“We have a structure that adapts. We opened in the middle of a pandemic, and we still have five stars (on Yelp).

Tamba Keifa, Owner, Chulla’s Cafe

Seven years were enough for Keifa to refine every part of the business plan, from its political philosophy to cooking efficiency. He claims his cooks can prepare any dish they offer in less than 10 minutes. That’s a tall order for the sprawling menu, which rivals an East Coast restaurant in scale, but on a recent visit it seemed believable. Stews, steaks, shawarma, and ribs all popped up within minutes.

The ribs are golden in an “afro sauce” as dark and incredibly complex as Coca-Cola. It first evokes southern barbecue sauce, then Japanese teriyaki, then the hot spices of Mexican adobada. The menu lists “Afro-Asian, Latin American, South European and Pacific Coast tastes” among its influences, but its main ancestor is Korean fried chicken, another dish that Keifa finds in the African Diaspora.

Chulla’s Afro Wings “Afro Sauce” is inspired by the sweet and salty sauce of Korean fried chicken.

During the Korean War,
Black soldiers
stationed in South Korea “didn’t know what to eat there,” he says, so they made fried chicken and contributed to its growing popularity across the country. Chulla’s Afro Sauce is based on the spicy-sweet frosting that became ubiquitous in Korean fried chicken restaurants in the 1990s, but “with an African aesthetic,” Keifa says. He has an inventor’s zeal for the recipe and encourages diners to try it on wings, burgers, salad or shawarma.

Keifa also has zealous goals for the future of its concept. He dreams of running a restaurant chain called Serengeti in major cities around the world. Its first anchor point will be the university campuses of the capital region, where Chulla’s is already a frequent caterer. “Community colleges are the hub of cultural integration in the United States,” Keifa said. “So if we can get into it, the land will be prepared for us.”

For now, Chulla diners seem more interested in food than philosophy. Few people ask about the esoteric slogan – “Think like a farmer and eat like a gardener” – which Keifa says is meant to invoke the agrarian aspirations of city dwellers living in an industrialized society. No one complains that the peanut stew, based on a West African dish, is called ‘Tanjier stew’ on the menu, although there are few Moroccans about it. “We named it that because during WWII Tangier was like San Francisco,” Keifa explains. “Full of art, very welcoming” – and a bridge between Africa and the West.

Chulla’s goal is to create the same type of space, tucked away in the outbuilding of the shopping center that it shares with a metro. “When people come here, whether they are middle class, whatever, we want them to have a fine dining experience,” says Keifa. “We want to welcome everyone. ”

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