.Swahili Spot Anchors in West Oakland

An East African food truck lands a brick-and-mortar

Priscilla Mkenda began serving East African dishes at a Lake Merritt food stand during the pandemic. “I used to cook some food, go with my tents and two tables,” she said. “Every day, my sales were increasing—slowly, slowly, slowly.” As she developed a supportive group of regular customers, Mkenda was motivated to start looking for a food truck. With luck, she found one online for a reasonable price in Sacramento and launched Swahili Spot on wheels.

The transition from running a food stand to owning a food truck made every aspect of running Swahili Spot easier. “I didn’t have to unload my tables or anything,” Mkenda said. With her newfound mobility, the chef attended Bay Area farmers’ markets, events and festivals. In time, her customers repeatedly asked if she had a brick-and-mortar. “I started shopping around for a store with a little money saved, and I found one in West Oakland,” she said.

Last May, Swahili Spot opened, Fridays to Sundays, in the former Gay 4 U location on Peralta Street. Mkenda still operates her food truck on occasion during the week for catering and corporate lunches, but for now she’s anchored in West Oakland. “When people google ‘African food,’ my take-out space pops up,” she said. “I’m working for something bigger eventually, but in the meantime I’ll be running that for a while.”

Mkenda’s menu is based on the food she grew up eating in Tanzania and Uganda, such as stews, curries made with coconut milk, and fresh hibiscus and tamarind juices. One of her entrées, makande, is a corn-and-pinto bean stew she ate almost daily when she was in school. “Beans and ugali was an everyday meal,” she said. Her mother taught her how to make the dish, along with greens and chapati, a flatbread. “And that’s exactly how I’m making it,” Mkenda added.

The chef also makes street food such as vitumbua, rice cakes, and mandazi, doughnuts, which she said are popular snacks in Tanzania. “You find women selling those outside. They make them early in the morning, and they’re good with tea,” Mkenda said. In 1999, she left Tanzania for California and settled in the Bay Area near her extended family. “It was easy for me to feel at home,” she added. 

“I love cooking, and used to host friends and family for dinner parties,” Mkenda said. Every time she cooked for her guests, they always loved her food. “That’s why I started thinking about having a restaurant,” she continued. The chef, who had previously worked in a restaurant, where she enjoyed mingling with customers, recalled, “It was fun for me.”

When Mkenda arrived in the Bay Area, she noticed a lot of Ethiopian restaurants, a few Nigerian ones and one featuring Cameroonian cuisine. “I was so curious. Why not a Tanzanian restaurant, or Kenyan, or Ugandan? Because we have at least a similarity in our food,” she said. This lack of representation in the local food economy prompted her to do research to start her own business.

After she opened Swahili Spot, it quickly joined the ranks of a growing community of African food trucks. Among them are Kemi Tijaniqudus’ Jollof Kitchen, featuring Nigerian dishes, and Dougie Uso’s Kendejah, a Liberian food truck and San Leandro restaurant. “We keep in touch and help each other,” Mkenda said. “Since our food is new to this place, we try to see how we can make it better, how we can make it known.”

Tanzanian dishes aren’t yet as familiar to Bay Area diners as ones from Ethiopia or Nigeria. “Almost everybody knows Nigerian food, so when they come to my store and my truck, they ask if I have fufu,” Mkenda said. “I have a Tanzanian-style fufu, ugali. It’s the same thing, but different.”

Swahili Spot also has a counterpart in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Grace Mrema serves Tanzanian dishes from her food truck, Kilimanjaro Flavour. “She’s a friend,” Mkenda said. “We talk a lot about how we do our business, how to make it easier, the downs and ups.”  

Swahili Spot, open Fri to Sun, 11am to 5pm, 1327 Peralta St., Oakland. 510.978.9495. swahilispot.com.

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