Michelle Ukegbu isn't messing around when it comes to the food at her one-month-old restaurant, Peppersoup Cafe. Her mother opened Houston's first African restaurant, Safari Restaurant, literally right around the corner back in the early 1980s. And their family owns restaurants back in their native Nigeria.
"Food is in my DNA," Ukegbu laughed on Saturday morning. My friends and I had shown up to try Peppersoup's breakfast/brunch menu, and Ukegbu rattled off answers to every question -- we had many -- about the fascinating array of breakfast items served up.
An unsweetened custard, served with hot evaporated milk and sugar on the side, with habanero-tinged black-eyed pea fritters called akara for dipping. Fried plantains in a sweet tomato sauce served alongside scrambled eggs topped with sauteed onions and still more tomatoes. Spicy bowls of ox-tail and goat pepper soups, with a special key ingredient served on the side.
"They call it alligator pepper because of the way it sneaks up and bites you," said Ukegbu about the tobacco-scented ground pepper, ringed with a bright red oil, that she placed gingerly on the table. "It's straight from my mother's village in Nigeria."
It does sneak up on you, too; everything is copacetic after taking a bite of the pepper soup with some alligator pepper mixed in, and then it hits you like a Black Cat exploding in your mouth. And just as quickly, the burn is gone. I liked it almost as much as I like a good Szechuan pepper trip.
And while all of this might sound exotic, the fabulous thing about Ukegbu's restaurant is how completely approachable it is.
This is what second generations do if and when they make the family business their career: make the food more accessible to American palates, and offer American conveniences like free wi-fi and flat-screen TVs on the walls. In Ukegbu's case, she left a fashion merchandising career in New York City to come back and open a restaurant that she calls "Nigerian-American," blazing a trail the same way her mother once did.
This method works. It always does. And I feel like Ukegbu might one day be instrumental in making Nigerian food as ubiquitous and accepted in Houston as Vietnamese, which was once also a "highly exotic" cuisine brought here by immigrants whose children have worked to make it a nearly native Gulf coast cuisine.
Nigerian food appeals to the Texan palate, too, just as Vietnamese does: by working off that soft Cajun influence that runs throughout the city. In an old post on its neighbor, Finger Licking Bukateria, I remarked on how closely its catfish pepper soup resembled a bowl of gumbo. The similarities are less pronounced at Peppersoup Cafe, but the creole flavors are still there in the unctuous ox tail broth or the dusky goat soup.
What's also interesting about the cuisine are the few vestiges left from colonial British occupation of the country, shown at Peppersoup in menu items such as meat pies and oatmeal. In other Nigerian restaurants, you'll sometimes find other British dishes like sausage rolls and scotch eggs, but the menu at Peppersoup is short and sweet.
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It's not too inconceivable that Nigerian or West African cuisine in general could start to take off in Houston now that the second generation is coming around to both cooking and eating the food, but a more important factor is the density of Nigerian population growth in Houston. While our city has only the third-largest Vietnamese population in the nation, it has the largest Nigerian population: It's been estimated at 2 percent of our current overall population, compared to less than .3 percent in the 2000 U.S. Census.
And one only needs to look at the album posted on Peppersoup's Facebook wall called "Smiles@PeppersoupCafe" to see the traction that Ukegbu's food is gaining with both Nigerian and non-Nigerian customers alike.