Portland's Best New Restaurants 2018: Akadi Brings the West African Flavor
In Portland, African cuisine is often shorthand for Ethiopian food, with its comforting stews and acres of spongy injera bread. But Akadi, open since last fall, rockets eaters to the continent’s lesser-known Western Coast. It’s redolent with smoked fish-funked flavors, smooth balls of cassava fufu, and hot pepper–rumbling sauces, the culinary touchstones of 32-year-old chef Fatou Ouattara’s native Ivory Coast.
That this screaming-yellow storefront on NE Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard is Portland’s sole sit-down West African restaurant is reason enough to visit. But be warned that Ouattara’s palate-expanding dishes can be habit-forming: delicate, whole-fried tilapia in tangy ginger-Dijon sauce (a French colonial flavor holdover), stews brimming with tender goat or smoked seafood-simmered cassava leaves, and newspaper-lined baskets sporting peppery grilled suya beef. Not to mention killer, fluffy-sweet fried plantains—the skins so caramelized that they stick to your teeth. The secret? Super ripe fruit, which intensifies the sugar. Admits Ouattara, who arrived in Portland in 2010 from Bouaké, Ivory Coast: “My mom would kick your butt if you didn’t let them ripen.”
The setting for all this is a small, mural-adorned dining room and sprawling, covered outside chamber that aims to channel the warmth of the bustling maqui (open-air restaurants) found from Burkina Faso to Nigeria. As Salif Keita, the “Golden Voice of Mali,” thumps from the speakers, tables fill with neighbors and West African–born Portlanders obsessing over the fufu. Per tradition, Ouattara pounds her cassava root, by hand, for at least 10 minutes. As for the sweet doughnut balls, insiders ask for her tomato-smoked veggie-habanero sauce on the side for dessert dunking. (So good.)
Akadi is a beautiful work in progress. A restaurant remodel is sputtering along, as Ouattara and biz partner George Faux scrape together funds. The kitchen might run out of ice—or part of its menu—on any given night. And waiting for your order can sometimes seem as long as an actual flight to Abidjan. And yet, it’s not hard to be patient. Food like this is worth a few bumps and traffic jams along the way.