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.