Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a guy has no formal restaurant training or experience, but he wants to open his own place, serving the food his family made when he was a kid. That’s a story that plays out in cities around the country every week. But this story is different. You see, the man in question here is Christian Domingo, a Little Rock mechanic. And the food he grew up on is from Sierra Leone in West Africa. And that’s how Central Arkansas got Kontiki African Restaurant, which held its grand opening on Sunday.
Domingo was born, got married and started his family in Sierra Leone, which is tucked between Liberia and Guinea on the far western edge of Africa. However, the Domingo family would leave toward the end of Sierra Leone’s civil war, which saw more than 50,000 people die. The Domingos won a visa lottery to come to the United States, and ended up settling in Little Rock.
“We came in one of the winter months, we were here for maybe a week and it snowed,” said Louisa Domingo-Bell, Christian’s daughter. “Everything shut down. It was just different. Back home, people walk everywhere, and my parents quickly found you have to know how to drive if you want to get around.”
Naturally, one of the adjustments the family had to make was to its diet. Little Rock has no African cuisine and very few unique African ingredients. The Domingos did get used to Arkansas food, but Domingo never let go of the food that he grew up with.
“Everywhere you go there’s Chinese food and burgers and fries,” said Domingo-Bell. “He’s been talking about it for years, and he decided to open a restaurant on his own. He saw the building had a for-lease sign, so he just jumped in.”
Kontiki African Restaurant is located in Alexander, in the former Alexander County Café. And while that adds to the oddity (raise your hand if you predicted Alexander would get Central Arkansas’ first African restaurant), it didn’t stop the masses on Sunday. Every table was either occupied or being cleaned, and a line extended at least 25 people deep out the front door and off the porch. It stayed consistently busy until the restaurant ran out of food before the evening hours it.
And how is the food? I got to sample several items, all of which were made well and tasty. There are dishes that pretty much all Arkansans will enjoy, like fried plantains, akara balls (made of rice flour and banana), and jollof rice and stew, which is a spiced rice cooked with tomato paste. Then there are dishes we’ve just never had here before. In particular, the cassava leaves, smoked fish and rice took me a few bites to get used to. Once I did, though, I found a wonderfully made, slightly spicy plate that I am already craving again.
“This is very authentic to Sierra Leone, it’s one of those meals that is a weekly meal, you will find it someone’s house,” said Domingo-Bell It’s based on the region my dad is from. Cassava leaves are the everyday man’s food. Everyone tells you it tastes better the longer it sits, it’s better tasting tomorrow than it is today.”
There is more on the menu than was available on opening day, including groundnut soup, which is made from ground peanuts, and fufu and okra, which is a very popular dish in West Africa. Fufu is a special type of bread made from cassava (or yucca) and green plantain flour. Domingo-Bell says some customers have asked for vegetarian options, and while that’s not traditional in West African food, Kontiki is working on ways to make customers happy. The family is also considering expanding to dinner service in the near future so that Little Rock residents can make it out more easily.
“It’s a little overwhelming, people are excited about it, but at the same time, I think trying to make it the same way you would make it home, it’s not the same at the restaurant,” said Domingo-Bell. “One of the things is we’re having to make substitutions because of food allergies and what people are used to. Keeping it authentic but being open enough to share it with everyone, that’s the biggest challenge.”
It goes without saying I’m excited for Kontiki, but my experience couldn’t compare to some others. At the table next to mine, I watched a grown man wiping away tears as he ate. His wife told the server he thought he would never get to taste food like he ate as a child again. That is profound. While foodies like me are certainly excited for the chance to try something that has never happened here in Arkansas, Kontiki is more important than that for many people. It’s a chance to go home again, even if it’s just for a meal.