Alloko Backyard presents a style of Ivory Coast from a ghost kitchen in Oakland

Shoukuya Cancancan Chicken from Alloko Garden in Oakland. Photo: David Law @Wildhorseproduction

The first thing you should know about Alloko Garden is that there is no Alloko Garden.

Alloko garden
Pick up from Jingletown Eats
2353 E. 12th St. (on Miller Avenue), Oakland

Well … at least not a stationary restaurant with that name. The month-long eatery, which specializes in Ivory Coast groceries, is one of more than 40 take-out restaurants and just in a new ghost kitchen called Jingletown Eats in East Oakland.

But I didn’t know that it was the first time I ordered a meal on the Alloko Garden website.

It wasn’t until I put the address on my phone and drove to pick up my order that I made slow circles around the busy industrial area on East 12th Street, looking unsuccessfully for signs of a restaurant by that name. On my third lap on 12th East, I finally found the pickup location of a fleet of doubly parked cars was marked in front of a large warehouse – which turned out to be multiple delivery people picking up groceries for customers who ordered third-party services like Doordash from , Caviar, Uber Eats, Grubhub, and Postmates.

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Jingletown Eats, a ghost kitchen by Oakland CloudKitchens, is home to more than 40 take-out and delivery-only grocery stores, including Alloko Garden.  Photo: Sarah HanJingletown Eats, a ghost kitchen by Oakland CloudKitchens, is home to more than 40 take-out and delivery-only grocery stores, including Alloko Garden. Most of those who stop by are delivery drivers, but customers can also pick up orders from suppliers here. Photo: Sarah Han

Alloko Garden’s chef, Gnakouri Tohouri, said I wasn’t the first pickup customer to be confused by his setup, but most of his guests may never know he doesn’t have a location as many order his food through apps and theirs Get meals delivered straight to your home. As a first-time restaurant owner, Tohouri said running Jingletown Eats (which is run by CloudKitchens, the startup founded by former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick) is the easiest, fastest, and cheapest way to get started in business. He considered opening his own space or opening a food truck, but both options meant potentially tied to an expensive and long-term lease or other financial terms. After tohouri toured a CloudKitchens facility in San Francisco, learned about the startup’s terms and conditions, and spoke to some vendors, Tohouri decided to rent a commercial kitchen in that room to test his concept – he signed up to train the Jingletown location in Oakland.

Alloko Garden owner-manager Gnakouri Tohouri.  Photo courtesy Gnakouri TohouriAlloko Garden owner-manager Gnakouri Tohouri. Photo: David Law @Wildhorseproduction

Although Tohouri has never owned a restaurant, he has cooked since childhood and grew up on his family’s farm in Ivory Coast. Tohouri was one of eight siblings in the family.

“When there are eight children, the golden rule is that you learn to cook and wash your own clothes,” Tohouri said. But it wasn’t until he moved to the US in 1990 that he really learned how to cook. First, it was out of necessity because it was cheaper than buying groceries in restaurants, but later it became a fun way to connect with your kids and teach them how to prepare the dishes he ate as a kid .

Tohouri earned an MBA from the University of Chicago, worked as an investment banker for a while before starting his own food distribution company called Gatom Foods, which sources grain from small farms in sub-Saharan Africa. While visiting the farming communities he grew up in in Ivory Coast and seeing the poverty in those areas, Tohouri was inspired to start a business that would empower farmers while introducing the people of the US to Ivorian food. He started Alloko Garden as a sort of demonstration platform so people could understand how best to use and prepare African grains – like Fonio – that he was distributing.

“Alloko Garden gives people the opportunity to interact with the food being prepared,” Tohouri explained. “I needed a restaurant so they would know how it should taste.”

Alloko Garden is currently a one-person business. Tohouri cooks all dishes, takes the orders and takes care of the administrative tasks, including calls from customers who may need recommendations or an introduction to Ivorian cuisine. (The Alloko Garden website has explanations of ingredients and cooking techniques, as well as photos of dishes to help those new to Ivorian cuisine.) Finally, he hopes to expand the brand with more locations and through the sale of prepackaged grains and too expand frozen foods in markets. But for now he’s focused on getting the flavors just right to properly portray Ivorian cuisine at Alloko Garden.

The namesake Alloko ($ 4.99) is a widely used Ivorian dish. Tohouri serves the fried sweet plantains with a hearty, spicy sauce made from tomatoes, peppers, onions, ginger, garlic and various African spices. The heat and smell of the dip complement the sweet, caramelized plantains well.

Alloko or fried plantains with a spicy dip sauce from Alloko Garden.  Photo: Sarah HanThe dish of the same name, alloko or fried plantains, with a spicy dip sauce. Photo: Sarah Han

Alloko Garden’s meat and fish preparation is influenced by Shoukuya (also called Choukouya), a traditional grilling technique from West African herding communities. Tohouri uses a charcoal-fire tandoor oven to cook proteins like chicken, leg of lamb, black cod, and sea bass that are flavored with a West African spice blend called cancan can made from black pepper, ginger, cayenne pepper, and other flavors.

I tried the grilled leg of lamb ($ 16.99), which consists of two large pieces of lamb, chopped onions and tomatoes, and a choice of side dishes: alloko with dipping sauce or, for $ 2 more, attiéké, a couscous-like side dish made from fermented and dried Cassava pulp, which is then grated into small granules. The lamb was flavorful, if unevenly cooked – one piece was perfect, the other a little chewy – but the attiéké stole the show. Similar to couscous, Attièkè has a slightly sour, fermented taste and is pleasant to chew. I could have eaten a whole bowl of it. (If you’re like me, get the alloko with the dish and order a separate side Attièkè for $ 6.99.)

Grilled leg of lamb with tomatoes and onions, attièke, alloko and fonio arancini from Alloko Garden.  Photo: Sarah HanGrilled leg of lamb with tomatoes and onions, attiéké, alloko and fonio arancini from Alloko Garden. Photo: Sarah Han

The Fonio Arancini ($ 5.99) is Tohouri’s version of an Ivorian dish with attiéké. Its variant is to use fonio – a small, millet-like grain with a nutty flavor that some tout as a superfood for its nutritional benefits – and fill the balls with green onions and aged Italian cheese before deep-frying. One serving comes with four balls.

Alloko Garden’s menu features two salads, both with a choice of fonio or attiéké: a tabbouleh version ($ 5.99) or a heartier option – mixed greens with chicken or lamb ($ 13.99).

The second time I ordered from Alloko Garden, Tohouri had added a lunch menu of four superfood bowls, including a vegan option with non-dairy cheese and a plant-based protein. The bowls are very much because you can try a few dishes at a time. I tried the N’Zassa Bowl ($ 13.99), which has an assortment of protein (two chicken legs, chicken legs, four chicken wings, or a black cod fillet), side dishes made from alloko and attiéké, and a small sandrofia, a drink made from ginger, Baobab and honey. I chose the black cod for my protein. The tandoor gives the fish a pleasant taste from the charcoal grill – but you need to watch out for bones.

The N'Zassa Bowl from Alloko Garden with black cod fillet, Attièkè and Alloko with dip.  Photo: Sarah HanThe N’Zassa Bowl from Alloko Garden with black cod fillet, Attiéké and Alloko with dip. Photo: Sarah Han

Fonio reappears on the dessert menu: Degueh, a yogurt-based drink combined with fonio, baobab powder and honey, and a thicker pudding made from similar ingredients without yogurt. Both cost $ 5.99.

One of the downsides of a new restaurant in a ghost kitchen is brand visibility. Tohouri and others who work at Jingletown Eats and similar delivery-only platforms rely on third-party apps to bring customers to them. According to the entrepreneur, a successful company can exist independently and attract customers. Tohouri is focusing on his website to build a broader network – on the website he plays the traditionally gluten-free and healthy aspects of Ivorian food and says his tariff has an “intercultural appeal” which is definitely true. While more people than ever are using food delivery apps, especially during the pandemic, it’s less certain that a mere delivery service serving a lesser-known kitchen will make a big splash on these platforms alone. But if Tohouri can preserve the taste and quality of its dishes, it will undoubtedly make itself known through its Ivorian dishes.

The Alloko Garden is open Monday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and from 4.30 p.m. to 8.30 p.m. for delivery and take-away. Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and from 4.30 p.m. to 7.30 p.m.

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