At Kabba’s Kitchen, Senegalese specials include some of Portland’s tastiest fried spring rolls

Would you be surprised to learn that some of Portland’s tastiest fried springs rolls come from a new Senegalese food cart?

Then you don’t know nems.

A legacy of French colonialism, spring rolls were brought to West Africa by the Vietnamese brides of Senegalese soldiers returning from the Indochina War. The crunchy snacks are now among the most popular street foods in Dakar. At Kabba’s Kitchen, one of just a tiny handful of West African restaurants in Portland, chef-owner Kabba Saidikhan carries on this tradition, wrapping ground beef and chicken with glass noodles in egg roll wrappers (the see-through rice paper used in Senegal is a bit too sticky for the cart, she says), then deep fries each roll to a golden crunch.

Saidikhan moved from Senegal to Vancouver, Wash. in 1996, back when Portland’s most famous West African restaurant was the North Park Blocks’ Baobab, which closed in the early 2000s. Urged on by friends, relatives and other fans of her cooking, Saidikhan decided to test out the food cart waters last year. Kabba’s Kitchen opened on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in May. As it happens, the former cheesesteak cart Saidikhan bought sits on the same block as Akadi, Ivory Coast-born chef Fatou Ouattara’s three-year-old restaurant. (Black Star Grill, a Ghanaian food cart formerly parked near Portland State University, is currently on hiatus as owner Enoch Aggrey looks for a new home).

“I had heard of the name Akadi, but i never really went there,” Saidikhan says. “But once we bought the cart, and signed all the papers, I was introducing myself to one of the ladies that runs a cart here, Kee (Kee’s Loaded Kitchen owner Kiauna Nelson), and she says, ‘Do you know there’s a West African restaurant right there?” And so we drove around the corner, and my husband goes, ‘Look, there’s the restaurant right there!’”

Kabba's Kitchen food cart

Fataya and nems from Kabba’s Kitchen.The Oregonian

There’s some menu overlap between the two businesses, including a whole fish preparation (a signature at Akadi) and the Senegalese favorite mafé, a creamy peanut sauce tossed with beef (Kabba’s is nice). But as Saidikhan points out, there are plenty of differences as well.

“We both serve West African. They serve Ivory Coast/Ghanaian. We serve Senegambian,” Saidikhan says, combining Senegal and Gambia, her family’s interlocking home countries. “Africa is so big, you know, there’s a variety of food.”

As for those fried spring rolls, Saidikhan hopes customers focus instead on another appetizer. She points to her fataya, a fried meat pie with ground meat, potatoes, onion, herbs and spices, which has deeper Senegalese roots.

11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday-Saturday; 3625 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.; 503-438-6770; https://kabbas-kitchen.business.site. This story is part of our annual guide to Portland’s best new food carts. Know of a cart that opened in the past year that you think we should know about? Drop me a line at mrussell@oregonian.com and let me know why you love it.

Michael Russell, mrussell@oregonian.com, @tdmrussell

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