Black-owned soul food, fusion restaurant gets location in Chico
Wal Riek used to work at the Safeway on Nord, right next to where he’ll soon be setting up his new restaurant. A few weeks ago, he was coming by his space to drop off some things when his former manager came over to congratulate him.
“That felt good,” he reflected, looking at the grocery chain from the front door of his business.
Riek is the owner and cook of late-night soul food fusion restaurant called Black Wal Street Café. This January, Riek signed the lease for the Café’s first brick and mortar location. The business will be at the former Midnite Munchies location in the Safeway parking lot on Nord. He says it’ll open this April, if not sooner.
A soft spoken extrovert with an easy manner, Riek talks about Black Wal Street Café’s popularity like a father bragging about a successful child.
“They love it. The food is great,” he said.
Currently, Riek cooks out of a friend’s commercial kitchen in Oroville. To place orders, people reach out on Facebook, Instagram, and in person. These days, Riek says he cooks 15 to 80 plates per week. That’s not to mention all the catering gigs he does.
“We cater a lot of private events … ranging from Chico, Sacramento, all the way down to Los Angeles,” Riek said.
Riek’s been cooking since he was a student at Chico State. He catered house parties and made plates for hungry friends on top of various day jobs. Eventually, he started making a name for himself on social media.
Riek said he first started cooking because he was homesick. Raised in the ethnically diverse neighborhood of City Heights in San Diego, Riek came to Chico for college in 2014.
“I was kind of missing home-y type foods,” he said. “So I have my mother. She taught me a lot of things. I had a lot of the spices that she would be using and stuff like that. So I brought those with me.”
Black Wal Street’s menu stems from the influence of Riek’s mother, who is an immigrant from South Sudan. But Riek’s dishes are creative, incorporating the tradition of African American soul food as well as the influence of a mentor who taught him Caribbean cooking.
Just before COVID-19 was found in California in 2020, Riek embarked on an immersive cooking excursion in Cuba. He cooked with locals, ate at people’s homes and learned Cuban culinary skills for his own food back home.
That’s where the fusion comes in. The food is thick with cultural significance and heavy with flavor. His dishes include creamy, spice-filled Cajun mac and cheese, fist-sized egg rolls filled with jambalaya and drizzled with his signature Rafiki sauce, and juicy Cuban chicken thighs marinated in orange sauce with plantains on the side.
Riek knows how the food is received. He took a risk opening up this storefront, but he says he never doubted his food’s ability to lure back customers.
“We already have a great following of people and supporters. So this will give them the opportunity to come by,” Riek said.
Riek’s cooking draws a diverse customer base, especially among Black and uprooted North State residents nostalgic for home cooking.
“It was a lot of people out here from, like, the inner cities – from LA, San Diego, the Bay Area, et cetera, et cetera. You know, sometimes they miss food that reminds them of home,” Riek said. “That's what we try to do.”
Black heritage and community care is baked into Black Wal Street Café’s operation. This February, Riek catered the Black History Month event at the Stonewall Alliance Center of Chico in downtown Chico. Riek also does community service, connecting his leftovers and supplies with unhoused or food insecure community members. He said he started doing community service work through his membership in the Black Student Union and the historically Black intercollegiate fraternity system Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Incorporated.
“I try to help others as much as I can,” Riek said.
He said the physical Black Wal Street Café will be no different.
“We're gonna stay true to our roots and continue with our community-based activities,” Riek said.
The name of the café comes from a nickname some kids gave Riek in his youth. It also calls back to the original Black Wall Street, a prosperous African American enclave in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that allowed for wealth accumulation in an otherwise ghettoized Black community in the early 20th Century.
In 1921, a white supremacist mob burned down over thirty blocks of the neighborhood and killed scores. Experts now say up to 300 people died in the Tulsa Race Massacre, though official records grossly undercounted the death toll.
Riek said that’s partly why he chose the name. It reminds him of resilience as well as Black excellence.
“Just the history behind it, where you had a lot of people being successful in a town or in an area where … you're facing a lot of adversities,” Riek said. “The historical context behind it just kind of motivated me to just, you know, just keep going.”
Riek works hard. Riek was cooking, too, when he worked at Safeway as a part-time hire in his sophomore year of college. He said he would set up a grill in the back of the grocery store and make food for his coworkers.
Back then, he lived on Columbus Avenue, right by the shopping center. When he left home for school, he’d pass by an empty storefront where a Chinese and Hawaiian restaurant used to be. It made him think about a restaurant of his own.
“I remember walking by and going to class and I’m like, I’m gonna get a spot one day,” Riek said.
And now he has it.
“It’s a dream come true,” he said.
But Riek isn’t stopping here. “First of many”, he said, in a Facebook post announcing the new space.
He credits his determination to his parents, South Sudanese immigrants who came to the United States in the 90s.
“Just seeing them achieve the things that they could have never thought of having. You know, seeing them make things happen, it just keeps me motivated,” Riek said.
And, of course, Riek also credits his community.