249 St. John St., Portland
Raphael Kabata wasn’t always a chef. “I used to be a lawyer!” he told me, laughing at the turn his life has taken. The young Congolese man, who came to the United States five years ago, used to cook dishes from his home country at home, for his Congolese friends. “They were always coming to my house so I could cook for them,” said Kabata. “They missed food from home. They kept telling me, ‘Please open a restaurant!’” Last summer, he finally obliged and opened Chez Okapi in a bright-blue building on St. John Street, a gritty part of Portland where numerous ethnic shops and restaurants owned by immigrants have clustered over the years.
The space is modest and the lighting is dim. It’s Kabata himself who invigorates the dining room. He calls out greetings to patrons as they enter and stops by to check in while they’re eating, beaming whenever he receives a compliment, which is often. One Saturday night this spring, my husband and I arrived to find the place packed. African pop blared at club volume. The crowded tables, their burgundy tablecloths covered in clear plastic, held plates piled high with meat and fufu, a starchy West African staple made with cassava flour.
A couple weeks later, the scene on a Friday night was much more subdued — a few middle-aged guys chatted at the bar while music videos we’d never seen, and couldn’t hear, played on the TV. But Kabata was his usual, exuberant self, offering suggestions when asked and brightening the atmosphere with his smile.
The succinct menu at Chez Okapi makes it easy to order, and the prices are easy on the wallet. A $10 platter of meat is large enough to satiate two hungry diners. When our order arrived, all at once, it was an impressive spread: two platters heaped with grilled meat and onions, a plate of stewed spinach ($4), a pile of fried plantains ($4), a mound of scooped fufu ($4), and a side salad ($4) — plus a couple Heinekens ($4 each). It’s easy to feast for under fifty bucks at Chez Okapi.
Kabata’s Congolese cuisine is minimalist fare, seasoned with restraint. The bone-in, bite-sized pieces of chicken and goat were rubbed with cayenne and other spices, then grilled. Being Americans raised on BBQ, we missed having some sort of dipping sauce, but the meats didn’t really need it. Their innate flavors shone through.
The fried plantains, however, could have used a sauce to lighten their sweet heaviness. Something tart, like the lemony dressing on the otherwise unremarkable salad of iceburg lettuce and cubes of processed cheese. The spinach, stewed in oil and peppered with silky slices of onion, proved to be a much more enjoyable side dish. I scooped up a few bites with the fufu, but the bright-tasting leaves were just as good on their own.
Whether you’re a food tourist hungry for adventure or already a fufu fanatic, Chez Okapi is well worth a visit.
— Hannah Joyce McCain