Radio Africa & Kitchen is one of a growing list of city- supported food businesses on Third Street in San Francisco's Bayview neighborhood. It's all part of a calculated redevelopment strategy to drive foodies to this long neglected corner of Southeast San Francisco. Yes, there is plenty of the mouthwatering BBQ and Soul Food you'd expect to find, but Bayview has a lot more to offer now, including at least three places to get a latte. (Is it just me, or is that a key indicator of foodie culture?)
"Welcome to our Bayview. Welcome to Third and Oakdale," said Mayor Ed Lee at a recent press conference for the restaurant's launch. Most restaurant openings don’t feature the local mayor, but the people packing this party were mostly city officials. Because San Francisco is this project’s biggest backer.
Radio Africa & Kitchen's chef, Ethiopian-born Eskender Aseged, has served "pop up" dinners at one venue after another over the last eight years. His approach is heavily influenced by his experience at the now-defunct Square One, one of the first restaurants to take classic recipes from the Mediterranean and reinterpret them for the California palate.
"We take any country from all over Africa, specifically Ethiopia, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal or Nigeria, and then we sort of bring on the fresher, more straightforward focus and cleaner taste," says Aseged.
You won’t find fried food at Radio Africa. Or ketchup. Or hot sauce. Aseged uses what he likes to call the power of Ethiopian spice mixes, like Berbere.
"It’s a combination of sweet, spicy and aromatic. That is to say, birdseye chili, which can be substitute for cayenne chili, sweet paprika. We got cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, fenugreek, basil, shallot, ginger."
As I explained in a report for KQED News, Aseged couldn’t afford to launch a brick and mortar restaurant on his own, but he could put down about 35 grand. The city, through a variety of agencies, brought roughly $710,000 to the table and built the restaurant from scratch. It's a street-level commercial anchor to a new condo complex.
Two months in, Aseged is still in a state of shock over his good fortune. This is a man used to making dinner for about 100 people off of two hot plates.
"We have 12 burners, a grill, griddle, salamander, two ovens. It’s kind of like, overkill over here," he says.
Aseged is expected to source some of his labor locally. The restaurant is serving dinner now, but soon it will open for lunch, featuring a new crop of young line cooks. They’re being trained nearby at the non-profit Old Skool Café, which works with troubled youth.
Even though the five-year-old Muni T has made this stretch of Third easily accessible, the street intimidates pedestrians, much like Geary and mid-Market do.
"It doesn’t feel walkable," says Andrea Baker, a consultant for San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development. "And therein lies the difficulty. Because small businesses tend to rely on foot traffic."
While sipping a large cappuccino from the Road House Coffee Company at Third and Thomas, Baker says the city might help launch a bakery next - or something Indian. (These days, there are more Asian Americans in Bayview than African Americans.)
"Why is it government’s job? Why isn’t it, I would say!" She laughs. "In our system, people pay taxes in the hope that if we all put a little something into it we can create big things."
Forty years ago, Bayview became a code word for urban decay and gang violence. A lot of people have not reassessed, despite the arrival of gourmet pizza, outdoor concerts, and a new library under construction.
"You know, it’s not just me saying it. I think if you talk to community leaders, they’re seeing a renaissance here," Captain Paul Chignell says. He's the SFPD's commanding officer for Bayview.
It’s not that the area is crime free. There are lots of beat police in evidence day and night along the corridor. But Bayview still struggles to get the big crowds other crime-plagued neighborhoods in San Francisco enjoy.
Amy Cohen runs Neighborhood Business Development for the city. "It’s very challenging to get people to come here," she says. "That’s honestly the power of restaurants in this town. We really feel like people will go anywhere for a good meal."
Even though Radio Africa & Kitchen is bustling/busy on a recent Friday night, its an expensive bet, perhaps the last of its kind after the state put the kaibosh on local redevelopment funds. But Chef Eskender Aseged brings with him a loyal clientele willing to give him -- and Bayview -- a chance to impress.
If you’re game to go on a foodie crawl in Bayview, here's a Google Map to get you started:
View Bayview Foodie Crawl in a larger map
You think you know Third Street? Eat your way down this stretch and report back! We're not pretending to be comprehensive. This is a selection of restaurants, some new to the neighborhood, some most definitely not.
See more and add your comments/reviews at KQED's NewsFix Blog.
View Bayview Foodie Crawl in a larger map