The first thing to know about Alloko Garden is there is no Alloko Garden.
Well… at least not a brick-and-mortar eatery of that name. The month-old restaurant specializing in food from Ivory Coast is one of more than 40 takeout and delivery-only operations at a new ghost kitchen called Jingletown Eats in East Oakland.
But I didn’t know that the first time I ordered a meal on Alloko Garden’s website.
It wasn’t until I punched in the address on my phone and drove to pick up my order that I found myself making slow circles around the busy industrial area on East 12th Street, searching fruitlessly for any sign of a restaurant by that name. On my third round on East 12th, I finally realized the pickup spot was marked by a fleet of double-parked cars in front of a large warehouse-style building — what turned out to be several delivery drivers picking up food for customers who ordered from third-party services like Doordash, Caviar, Uber Eats, Grubhub and Postmates.
Alloko Garden’s chef-owner Gnakouri Tohouri said I’m not the first pickup customer to be confused by his set-up, but most of his diners may never know he doesn’t have a dedicated location, as many are ordering his food from apps and having their meals delivered straight to their homes. As a first-time restaurant owner, Tohouri said operating out of Jingletown Eats (which is run by CloudKitchens, the startup founded by former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick) was the easiest, fastest and cheapest way to get his business started. He considered opening his own space or starting a food truck, but both these options meant potentially getting locked into an expensive and longstanding lease or other financial terms. After touring a CloudKitchens’ facility in San Francisco, hearing about the startup’s terms and speaking to a few vendors operating out of it, Tohouri decided renting a commercial kitchen at the space was his best bet to test his concept — he signed up to work out of the Jingletown location in Oakland.
Although Tohouri has never owned a restaurant before, he’s been cooking since he was a kid, growing up on his family’s farm in Ivory Coast. Tohouri was one of eight siblings in the family.
“When there are eight kids, the golden rule is you learn to cook and you learn to wash your own clothes,” Tohouri said. But it wasn’t until he moved to the United States in 1990 that he really learned how to cook. First, it was out of necessity because it was cheaper than buying food from restaurants, but later, it became a fun way to connect with his kids and teach them how to make the dishes he grew up eating.
Tohouri earned an MBA at the University of Chicago, worked for a while as an investment banker, before starting his own food distribution company called Gatom Foods, which sources grains from small farms in sub-Saharan Africa. While visiting the farming communities he grew up amongst in Ivory Coast and seeing the poverty in these areas, Tohouri was inspired to start a business that would empower farmers, while also introducing people in the United States 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 — he was distributing.
“Alloko Garden gives people the opportunity to interact with the prepared food,” Tohouri explained. “I needed to have a restaurant so they know what it is supposed to taste like.”
For now, Alloko Garden is a one-person operation. Tohouri cooks all the dishes, takes the orders and runs the administrative duties, including fielding calls from customers who might need recommendations or a primer in Ivorian cuisine. (The Alloko Garden website has explanations of ingredients and cooking techniques, as well as photos of dishes, that will help those new to Ivorian cuisine.) Eventually, he hopes to expand the brand, with more locations and by selling pre-packaged grains and frozen foods at markets. But for now, he’s concentrating on getting the flavors just right to properly represent Ivorian cuisine at Alloko Garden.
The namesake alloko ($4.99) is a common Ivorian dish. Tohouri serves the fried sweet plantains with a savory, spicy sauce made with tomato, peppers, onions, ginger, garlic and various African spices. The heat and tang of the dip complement the sweet, caramelized plantains well.
Alloko Garden’s meat and fish preparation is informed 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, lamb shank, black cod and sea bass, flavored with a West African spice blend called cancancan made with black pepper, ginger, cayenne pepper and other aromatics.
I tried the grilled lamb shank ($16.99), which comes with two sizeable pieces of lamb, chopped onions and tomatoes, and a choice of side: alloko with dipping sauce or, for $2 more, attiéké, a couscous-like side dish made of fermented and dried cassava pulp that’s then grated into small granules. The lamb was seasoned well, albeit unevenly cooked — one piece was perfect, the other a little on the chewy side — but the attiéké stole the show. Similar to couscous, attièkè has a slightly sour, fermented flavor and a pleasant chew. I could have eaten a whole bowl of it. (If you’re like me, get the alloko with the dish, then order a separate side of attièkè for $6.99.)
The fonio arancini ($5.99) is Tohouri’s version of an Ivorian dish made with attiéké. His twist is using fonio — a small, millet-like grain with a nutty flavor that some tout as a superfood for its nutritional benefits — and stuffing the balls with scallions and aged Italian cheese before deep-frying them. A serving comes with four balls.
Alloko Garden’s menu offers two salads, both with a choice of fonio or attiéké: a version of tabouleh ($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 featuring four Superfood Bowls, including one vegan option that features non-dairy cheese and a plant-based protein. The bowls are a great deal because you get to sample a few dishes at once. I tried the N’Zassa Bowl ($13.99) which includes a choice of protein (two chicken drumsticks, chicken thigh, four chicken wings or a black cod fillet), sides of alloko and attiéké, and a small Sandrofia, a drink made of ginger, baobab and honey. I chose the black cod for my protein. The tandoor gives the fish a pleasing char-grilled flavor — but you will have to watch for bones.
Fonio makes an appearance again on the dessert menu: degueh, a yogurt-based drink combined with fonio, Baobab powder and honey and a thicker pudding made with similar ingredients sans yogurt. Both are $5.99.
One of the downsides of being a new restaurant in a ghost kitchen is brand visibility. Tohouri and others who operate at Jingletown Eats and similar delivery-only platforms depend on third-party apps to bring customers to them. A successful business, the entrepreneur said, is one that can stand and attract customers on its own. Tohouri is concentrating on his website as a way to cast a wider net — on the site, he plays up the traditionally gluten-free and healthful aspects of Ivorian food, and says his fare has “cross cultural appeal,” which is definitely true. While more people than ever are using food delivery apps, especially during the pandemic, it’s less certain if a delivery-only operation serving a lesser-known cuisine can make it big on these platforms alone. But if Tohouri can sustain the flavors and quality of his dishes, there’s no doubt word will spread about his Ivorian eats.
Alloko Garden is open for delivery and takeout from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4:30-8:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4:30-7:30 p.m., Sunday.