By Mike Sutter, Staff Writer
October 19, 2016 Updated: October 19, 2016 10:31pm
The freefall of the oil market, for most of us, hasn’t meant much more than cheaper gas. For Nigerian-born petroleum engineer Stephen Ekwunife, the crash meant the end of his American oil-services job.And for San Antonio, that meant Ekwunife could turn a love of cooking into Kobams African Restaurant.
Kobams specializes in the food of Nigeria, Cameroon and the Ivory Coast, with tomato-rich dishes such as joloff rice, aromatic egusi soup served with doughy pounded yam starch called fufu for scooping, plus grilled and roasted meats and fried plantains to sweeten the deal.
Ekwunife’s San Antonio chapter began when he moved here in March 2015 after his petroleum job in New Orleans fell through. He took his severance and savings and poured them into a former taquería in a strip mall that shares space with a bingo hall and two churches.
Ekwunife did most of the renovation work himself, he said, from replacing the ceiling to texturing the deep orange walls to rehabilitating the kitchen space. The process took nine months, and Kobams opened in January this year.
The name Kobams? Don’t look for deeper meaning, because as Ekwunife said, sometimes you just go with something unique that sounds good when you say it: Kobams.
Pepper soup sounds good when you say it. Pepper soup is something different when you smell it.
With its hot, brothy tumble of liver, kidney, cow skin and tripe, it makes menudo seem as tame as canned cream of mushroom. The offal’s musky flavor makes an unlikely but harmonious dance partner with an eye-wateringly fierce broth.
The pepper soup was just an introduction to the Nigerian canon. Fix in your sense memory the smell of seeds and pulp from a freshly butchered pumpkin. Now transport that memory to a hot bowl of soup with greens and fatty knobs of goat meat. Now picture eating that soup with fingers full of something like proofed bread dough. This is the experience of egusi soup with fufu.
Egusi is made from ground pumpkin or melon seeds, and fufu is the pounded yam flour served with it, formed into a doughy mound that’s squeezed through the fingers a dumpling at a time for dipping into the soup. The aromas, the texture, the awkward spectacle of utensil-free eating — this is the Kobams experience.
In that same vein, ogbono soup came across as aggressively cheesy and fermented, a collagenous tangle of mashed seeds from a plant known as African mango. Fish stock and spinach added to the sweaty aromatics, and the slick texture was augmented further by cow’s skin, a protein I chose over more conventional beef or chicken. It’s a choice I wouldn’t make again, no more than I’d make chili out of nothing but fat trimmings.
If the experience sounds relentlessly unfamiliar, it should. This is how we expand our culinary horizons. But there are touchstones to the familiar at Kobams as well.
Suya, for example, falls in that universal food subcategory of grilled beef and onions. At Kobams, suya is brisket carved shawarma-style in long and short strips. They’re as spare and arid as barely reconstituted jerky, with a barbecue rub-style spice called yaji, made from crushed peanuts, black pepper, garlic and ginger.
Kobams’ fried rice with chicken brings to mind arroz con pollo, with subtle tweaks. The rice blooms with curry, even if the “fried rice” part of the equation is negligible, really just a toss of mixed vegetables from a freezer bag. The chicken is barely seasoned, a leg quarter dry and sticky under bronze skin. I found myself drawn back to more interesting plates.
Somewhere in the land between the familiar and the unfamiliar lies joloff rice, as aromatically spicy as paella, with a rich tomato glow and sparks of thyme, ginger and garlic. A heaping mound of that rice with roasted beef shoulder clod dressed in the same tomato sauce was one of this review’s most satisfying dishes.
My favorite dish at Kobams arose from an unlikely source. Tilapia, in general, is a fish I’ll eat only under protest, given its murky provenance and silty flavor. But in a yeoman’s show of skill and seasoning, Ekwunife transformed a whole fish into a pick-apart bounty of tomato, pepper and firm, milky flesh with warm tones that dovetailed with half-sweet fried plantains.
With every artful dodge of the fork — necessary given the Wolverine clawscape of the fish’s silvery bones — came a tangle of fried onions to sharpen and sweeten the taste.
There’s no denying Ekwunife’s skill in the kitchen. But his lack of previous experience running a restaurant leaves little room for table service beyond the ordering and delivering of food. Drinks are purely an afterthought. There’s a cooler of bottled water and tea, broken only by Mexican Coke and Vitamalt, a stubby bottle of soda popular in Africa and the Caribbean that tastes like sorghum seltzer.
What will seem disappointingly familiar in this unfamiliar setting are three TV screens, two of them in steady CNN mode, the third blaring disconsonant pop music over what seems like “Eastern Europe’s Funniest Home Videos.” Bad news and bad video gags run in stark counter-current to the good vibes generated by food that is by turns enlightening, challenging and welcome in San Antonio’s culinary tapestry.
Kobams African Restaurant
★ (1 star)
8753 Grissom Road, 210-474-6058, www.kobams.com
Quick bite: Nigerian specialties from Stephen Ekwunife, a petroleum engineer who traded oilfield services for the love of cooking the rice dishes, aromatic soups, grilled meats and pounded yam fufu of his homeland.
Hit:Whole grilled tilapia, joloff rice
Miss: Dry suya beef, overcooked chicken
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, noon-8 p.m. Sunday
Price range: Appetizers and sides such as fried plantains, $2-$10; grilled beef suya $13; whole grilled tilapia $13; main dishes with rice and meat, $13-$18; soup with pounded yam (fufu) and meat $13-$14; soft drinks $2-$3.
★★★★Superior. Can compete nationally.
★★★Excellent. One of the best restaurants in the city.
★★ Very good. A standout restaurant of its kind.
★ Good. A restaurant that we recommend.
(no stars) We cannot recommend this restaurant at this time.
Express-News dining critics pay for all meals.