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SF Pop-Up Explores the Intersection of Venezuelan and Ghanaian Food

Suya beef arepas, hibiscus sticky buns, and a mutual love of ice-cold Malta

Side view of an arepa stuffed with shredded beef
Pabellón criollo arepa from Tavo’s Joint
Tavo’s Joint

The first time Selasie Dotse and Gustavo Villarroel chatted about their respective childhoods in Ghana and Venezuela, they bonded over their mutual obsession with Malta, the malty carbonated soft drink that Villarroel likens to sweet unfermented beer.

“It’s like the worst drink for you — it’s all the sugar in soda and all the carbs in a can of beer,” Villarroel says, laughing. “I love it. Nothing ever beat the idea of an ice-cold Malta and an empanada.”

Dotse and Villarroel had become friends about two years ago when they were both cooks at SPQR, and now they were waxing nostalgic over the same candies and snack foods — Ovaltine-flavored confections were another big one — even though they grew up in opposite sides of the world. It seemed as good a sign as any that the two would have fun cooking together. For four days next week, they’ll make that dream a reality, as their the chefs’ respective pop-ups, Tavo’s Joint and Sankofa, will join forces to put out a hybridized Venezuelan-Ghanaian takeout menu: arepas and empanadas filled with beef seasoned with West African suya spice, hibiscus sticky buns, and yes, bottles of ice-cold Malta that should be perfect for washing it all down.

The joint menu will served out of the Tavo’s Joint pop-up space at 167 11th Street in SoMa from October 15–18, with online pre-ordering starting on Monday, October 12. They’ll keep taking orders until they sell out, Villarroel says.

Beef skewer garnished with peanuts and cilantro
Sankofa’s chichinga skewer
Sankofa

The timing seemed right, as neither chef was working a full-time restaurant gig at the moment. Villarroel left the fine dining world to start Tavo’s Joint in September, serving a menu of very traditional Venezuelan street foods like arepas, empanadas, and tequeños (Venezuelan cheese sticks). It’s “no frills” food, he explains — “not deconstructed anything or fancy plating; just good food that is my culture.” Dotse, on the other hand, was laid off from her job as a cook at Lazy Bear in August, but has been able to use the kitchen there as a prep space for Sankofa, her pop-up that explores the flavors of Ghana and the African diaspora. She also has a separate fine-dining pop-up series, A Hard Pill to Swallow, that’s focused on fostering collaborations between Black chefs.

What, then, are the points of intersection between Ghanaian food and Venezuelan food? Especially since neither cuisine on its own is particularly well represented in the Bay Area, much less in combination. Dotse says that as she and Villarroel talked, they were both struck by how widely both cuisines use things like cilantro and fried plantains. And in Ghana, they also have a meat pie that’s similar to a Venezuelan empanada.

The empanada on the joint menu is a play off of that theme: It’s stuffed with onions, peppers, and roasted short rib that’s been seasoned with fiery Ghanaian suya spice. For the arepa, she and Villarroel will fill the griddled corn cake with that same spicy short rib, then add fried plantains and a peanut and coriander slaw. Villarroel says it’s like a West African take on a classic pabellón criollo arepa — it’s got the shredded beef and the plantains, with the slaw taking the place of the traditional black beans.

A sugar-dusted Venezuelan sticky bun on a plate
Tavo’s Joint’s pan de guayaba
Tavo’s Joint

Another Tavo’s Joint specialty is the sticky bun–like Venezuelan pan de guayaba. For the pop-up, the two chefs are doing hybrid hibiscus-flavored version inspired by Ghanaian sugar bread and sobolo, a Ghanaian hibiscus tea. For a more purely Ghanaian offering, Dotse will also serve her chichinga suya beef skewer — a dish Villarroel describes as one of the most delicious things he’s ever eaten.

As Dotse explains, the reasons for these ties between these two cuisines that developed several thousands of miles apart are rooted in history of the Atlantic slave trade — a topic she’s been researching to better understand its impact on Venezuelan food culture.

Both chefs see their pop-up collaboration as one way forward for a local restaurant industry that’s been devastated by the pandemic — but that also, in their view, has been stagnant for quite some time. “There are a lot of talented chefs out there,” Villarroel says. “They either work for someone else, or they’re making someone else’s food.” He sees the current moment of transition in the industry as a time for chefs cooking non-Eurocentric food to really seize the moment — “to cook their own food and tell their own stories.”

Dotse, who has written about her own challenges as a Black chef at some of the Bay Area’s most prominent fine dining restaurants, says, “The food scene’s all kind of the same.” Venezuelan-Ghanaian food, on the other hand? That’s certainly something new. And while Dotse says she felt hesitant about cooking African food in the early days of her fine dining career, lately, she’s found it especially rewarding. Sometimes, she says, customers tell her, “Wow, this takes me home, like I’m on the beach in Ghana eating skewers.”

“It just brings me so much joy to replicate that feeling for someone,” Dotse says.

The Tavo’s Joint x Sankofa collaborative menu items will be available October 15–18, with preordering set to start on Monday, October 12. Tavo’s Joint’s regular menu will also be available. See the menu below:

Tavo's Joint

167 11th St, San Francisco, CA 94103 Visit Website

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