African Chop pairs comfort food with business savvy
LA’s food truck fleet has never been deeper or more diverse, which mirrors the sprawling city’s restaurant scene. Regional Mexican delicacies are becoming more commonplace, and different concepts now draw inspiration from almost every continent. Still, African Chop stands out for many reasons, with two Cameroonians serving a focused menu of “gourmet African food” from a truck that launched in summer 2018.
Jollof rice is a hotly debated dish across West Africa and supposedly originated in Senegal. This fragrant tomato-stained rice dish also incorporates onion, an array of spices, and broth. “The biggest thing is that we do not use a chicken or beef broth in the base sauce for the rice,” co-owner Hector Tantoh says. “We chose instead to combine all the fresh herbs/ingredients to make our base for two reasons. The flavor profile is fresh and different, and we can serve the same rice to vegans and non-vegans alike.” African Chop also uses jasmine rice versus basmati or parboiled rice.
African Chop’s tight menu spotlights fluffy jollof rice in four combo plates that also include judiciously sweet fried plantains and sautéed spinach. Tantoh said that focus on a small menu is important for consistency’s sake. That’s why customers won’t find other more elaborate dishes he grew up eating like ndolé, his country’s iconic bitterleaf soup.
Tantoh grew up in Doula, a coastal city in Cameroon. He earned an MBA at Penn State University’s Smeal College of Business and moved to Los Angeles in 2016 to develop a business idea that’s currently on hold. When he isn’t working on African Chop, Tantoh also co-pilots Grapevite, a start-up that lets people “find out what their friends are doing ‘BEFORE’ they do it so they can join in, instead of finding out after the fact on social media.”
For African Chop, he teamed up with Opportune Akendeu, a fellow Cameroonian who moved to Los Angeles as a teenager. Together they now serve the food of their youth, meeting through a mutual friend and have since become so close that they now refer to teach other as brother and sister. Akendeu initially suggested the idea of doing a food truck and began catering operations in August 2017. They also cooked at local events like Ankara Festival and the Afro Music Festival. In August 2018, they launched this truck. Fittingly, the truck had recently parked next to some of the world’s leading tech companies along Santa Monica’s Pennsylvania Avenue.
Fish combo ($13) features remarkably juicy, with wild-caught mackerel served atop jollof rice. Tantoh won’t give all of their secrets away, but they dry-rub the meaty fish and brush it with seasoning before broiling bone-in cross-sections in an oven. He grew up eating charcoal grilled mackerel in Cameroon, but that cooking method isn’t very practical on a food truck.
Suya (beef) ($13) is the other standout combo starring spicy sliced chuck. In Cameroon, suya chunks are typically skewered on a stick and grilled over coal or wood fire. African Chop opts for an oven. They source a powder from back home that combines chiles, roasted peanuts, and crushed spices. They start by treating beef to the same dry rub they use on fish, then adding suya spice blend half-way through the cooking process to permeate the tender meat. To take advantage of the jollof rice bed, African Shop’s suya is a bit saucier than normal.
African Chop also sells a chicken combo with two hormone- and antibiotic-free legs and a vegan combo starring earthy black beans. No matter the plate, Tantoh prides African Chop on using only fresh ingredients, avoiding cans, butter, dairy, and lard for levity’s sake.
Bonus: they let customers add two puff-puffs to each combo for a buck. These springy deep-fried beignet balls are pretty addictive, and available with or without powdered sugar.
Customers who ask for their food spicy will get a tangy, punchy sauce made with blended habanero peppers, onions, and bell peppers that are reduced and seasoned. Soon enough, African Chop’s owners plan to sell bottles of the sauce from the truck.
Cameroon is a mid-sized African country, with just 25 million people by one estimate. Considering that just under 1,500 Cameroonians live in Los Angeles, it was a long-shot that African Chop even exists. That their food is so good is even more remarkable.
In West Africa, chop means to “eat” or “dine.” Since African Chop is serving crave-worthy food that should appeal to pretty much anybody — not just homesick Cameroonians — hopefully awareness will rise for that term and the cuisine.
African Chop stops at different locations around town, including Downtown, Santa Monica, and Mid-Wilshire. Follow them on Instagram.
Source: Eater LA – All – Joshua Lurie