When Uncle Al cooks up catfish po'boys and hush puppies, he's thinking of the Volta Delta, not Mississippi. "These meals are not Mississippi-style, they are not New Orleans-style, they are African," explains Uncle Al, a.k.a. Albert Fadonougbo, the Benin-born owner and chef of his namesake Long Beach restaurant.
Uncle Al says the Beninese adapted their indigenous cuisine to their French imperial masters during the 18th century. At roughly the same time, a continent away, West African slaves were cooking for their own French owners in Louisiana. When the two distinct African groups met in the United States in shackles, they combined their distinctive Francophonic cuisines to produce Cajun cuisine. Therefore, avers Uncle Al, African and Cajun food are the same.
Whether you buy his logic or not, you'll believe anything the gregarious giant says after eating his bold Afro-Cajun dishes. Fadonougbo has successfully drawn upon both sides of the Middle Passage in creating his restaurant's menu during the past 10 years. Though most of the entrées appear mundane on the menu, Fadonougbo's massive-but-delicate hands combine Cajun complexity with West African subtlety to inject some much-needed energy into Long Beach's soulless soul-food scene.
The only genuinely African item on Uncle Al's menu is the kehinde chicken, a Nigerian specialty studded with snappy spices in every stringy bit of baked flesh. The red rice served alongside tastefully complements the poultry and comes judiciously speckled with rosemary and thyme.
Kehinde chicken is a good choice. But do chomp through Uncle Al's po'boy menu and marvel at his cross-continental fusion. Though each is a simple six-inch sandwich filled with lettuce, tomato and heaps of tangy fish, Uncle Al introduces bold spices uncommon to the Delta and slathers the results with his spectacular All Purpose Sauce. (More on that sauce later—much more). The Beninese's catfish, red snapper, oyster and shrimp sandwiches all live up to the hearty reputation of the po'boy food group: greasy and heavy but above all delightful.
Uncle Al doesn't limit himself to the Afro world. There's the plate of six fish egg rolls, a simple meal of flavorful white fish surrounded by egg-roll wrappings that appears like the tastiest silkworm cocoon in the world. The wrapping is made from batter in Uncle Al's kitchen (delicate and not at all greasy) and the fish is equally fresh. The salmon burger is pink and tender; Uncle Al says the salmon patty contains just two grams of fat and 80 calories. That may be true, but the rest of the sandwich— lettuce, tomato and the All-Purpose Sauce packed into a firm bun—seems as robust as any heart-clogging burger.
Much of Uncle Al's menu would be merely tasty—and I mean this kindly—if it weren't for that super All Purpose Sauce. It's advertised that way throughout the restaurant, and anoints almost everything here, as if food were a baby on the baptismal font. Al's crew, hailing from Sudan, Niger and various points in the African diaspora, wouldn't divulge what's in the sauce, saying only that the patent is pending. I didn't verify that claim with the Department of Commerce, but Uncle Al has a good case to protect this sauce. The unctuous condiment is ready to be packed in those little plastic bags and marketed fast-food-chain-wide. It's as white as the full moon and zipping with a snappy/sweet zing that could overload a power grid. I found myself pouring extra on everything—French fries, fish, and even, during one visit, my own fingers by happy accident.
Uncle Al's fusion dream reverberates through the restaurant. Lunches and weekends attract friendly crowds of all colors, mostly from the surrounding (and trendy) East Village neighborhood. The sound system plays reggae and Motown most days, while Friday and Saturday nights feature Long Beach cable-access mainstay Melvin Sims and his bebop-inflected electronic saxophone. Uncle Al might not make convincing arguments regarding culinary history, but his vision is just wonderful.
UNCLE AL'S SEAFOOD, LOCATED AT 400 E. FIRST ST., Long Beach, IS OPEN MON.-THURS., 11 A.M.-8 P.M; FRI., 11 A.M.-9 P.M.; SAT., NOON-9 P.M.; SUN., NOON-7 P.M. www.unclealseafood.com, (562) 436-2553. DINNER FOR TWO, $10-$14. BEER AND WINE. ALL MAJOR CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED.
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