During the hour and change that I was at Ruth’s Buka last Wednesday, not a single customer looked at a menu when they ordered their food. Either they knew their order by heart or Sunny Ogbe, Ruth Ogbe’s husband who helps manage the family-run Nigerian restaurant, knew exactly what the customers came in to eat.
For those not as familiar with the menu at Ruth’s Buka, you’d see a list of specialties from all over Nigeria starting with the crowd-pleasing Jollof rice to a variety of stews from Egusi to bitter leaf and pepper soup featuring your choice of fish, chicken, beef or goat.
Opened five years ago in October of 2015, Ruth’s Buka sits on the corner of a quiet stretch of Foothill Boulevard in East Oakland in a neighborhood of homes, mosques and churches. When Ogbe first moved to Oakland from Lagos in 1998, she couldn’t find any Nigerian restaurants to eat at when she didn’t want to cook, so she eventually opened her own to fill that hole. “I always had it in my mind like when I’m ready, that’s what I’m gonna do,” she says.
Though Ogbe’s restaurant is only one of three Nigerian restaurants in the East Bay (Miliki is nearby in the Laurel and Golden Safari in neighboring Hayward), it doesn’t necessarily account for catering-only and informal kitchens that folks run out of their homes in the area. In fact, that’s how Ogbe got her start. First cooking out of her home and later running a catering business out of a commercial kitchen in Oakland, she has served at weddings and parties for the Nigerian and larger West African community in the Bay Area.
At Ruth’s Buka, she’s had the autonomy of space — a kitchen all her own where she can maintain her catering business while her customers can dine in and socialize in the front.
In Nigeria, a buka refers to casual dining spots that function as social hubs as much as eateries, often spilling out of open-view kitchens into the street. At bukas, the menu is a visual one — pots simmer with different specialties from across the nation and folks make combinations as they please from what is in front of them. Ogbe carries this same spirit of regional diversity at her buka, providing diners with dishes from Nigeria’s delta region, as well as Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba specialties.
To bring these flavors of Nigerian cuisine to Oakland, Ogbe has vendors back in Nigeria who ship her ingredients over here. “Basically, all our ingredients come from different parts of Nigeria because we serve [food from] different parts of Nigeria not just one culture,” she says. Ogbe is also buying and breaking down whole cows and goats for her restaurant and catering customers. “We eat it fresh back home not like here where everything is frozen,” she explains.
Unsurprisingly, the most popular item at Ruth’s Buka is the West African staple, Jollof rice. Made across Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal, the matter of who makes the best version of the tomato-laden rice dish is an active topic of debate among West Africans.
Ruth’s version is coated with spice bloomed oil that leaves your mouth warm and wanting more. Asked how she makes her version of Jollof, Ogbe says it’s not that hard. “It’s like watching new born babies for them not to choke. That’s the same way you cook Jollof rice,” she explains. “You have to care for it a lot so that it doesn’t burn. For the right texture, you can’t put too much water [or] too much seasoning. You just have to monitor it. Baby it.”
Sitting at Ruth’s Buka and watching neighbors and customers stopping in, it’s easy to start wondering about the role and format of a restaurant — how restaurants can fulfill the homesick cravings of a diaspora and serve as an anchor for a neighborhood. Since much of our dining experience has been standardized, from menu hierarchies to the increasingly ubiquitous “bowl” format, Ruth’s Buka stands out for its commitment to staying true to its Nigerian roots.
Instead of following American formalities of dining, Ogbe and her family welcome their customers with an inviting warmth typical of family-run eateries.