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Richmond Restaurant Offers Bold Culinary Combinations

JewFro and Soul Taco Founders Trey Owens, Ari Augenbaum and Nar Hovnanian
Nar Hovnanian
JewFro and Soul Taco Founders Trey Owens, Ari Augenbaum and Nar Hovnanian

In November of 2018, three friends opened Soul Taco in a tiny Richmond storefront. It featured popular Latin American foods with a soupcon of soul. Executive chef Ari Augenbaum points to al pastor – grilled pork cooked with pineapple.

“We do a root beer braised oxtail al pastore," he says. "You get some of the sweetness that would typically come down from the pineapples in a traditional al pastore, and then we do it with a pineapple and roasted jalapeno salsa.”

Also on offer, cornmeal crusted catfish with a tomatillo salsa, hush puppy nachos and Mississippi pot roast flautas.

After just two months in business, co-owner Trey Owens says they won an award from the Microsoft Network.

“By January of 2019 we were the best new restaurant in the city," he recalls. "We got best tacos in the state. We got a lot of national recognition. We were featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.”

The food at Soul Taco was so popular that he, Augenbaum and partner Nar Hovnanian added a second restaurant in Shockoe Bottom, and now they’ve come up with a new concept, pairing African and Jewish favorites.

“You know I was thinking: Jewish-African – what can we name it?" Owens explains. "It literally just jumped out at me. I was like: ‘JewFro!’”

This fall Augenbaum says JewFro will open in Shockoe featuring unusual menu items like West African peanut soup with a Morrocan-seasoned lamb kreplach.

“Kreplach is a traditional dumpling my mom used to make the night before Yom Kippur before the fast,” says Augenbaum.

Hovnanian, who handles the group’s PR and marketing, admits the dish may sound odd.

“Peanut butter and soup just doesn’t sound that great. We had all tasted it, and we loved it, but we weren’t sure how the public was going to view that dish.”

They offered it at a pop-up restaurant over the holidays and were encouraged.

“It won’t make the menu if we don’t find it delicious," she says. "We had people ordering our chopped liver in quarts.”

The restaurant’s theme is the 1970’s – a decade when one popular band announced the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. It’s a time that resonates with Owens.

“My dad was born in the 50’s, so he pretty much grew up in the 70’s, and so that was the music I was born listening to. And I am an Aquarius!”

At that time Jews stood alongside African-Americans in the on-going fight for civil rights. In that same spirit, these 21st century foodies believes the time is right for a political message – that these two groups have plenty in common and should be friends.

“In the past restaurants and small businesses have kind of kept themselves out of the political realm," Hovnanian says, "but it’s 2021, and everybody is just kind of in everything at this point” so we decided we would try our hand at it.”

JewFro adds spices from Ethiopia, Egypt and Tunisia to make its Reuben sandwich something special.
Nar Hovnanian
JewFro adds spices from Ethiopia, Egypt and Tunisia to make its Reuben sandwich something special.

At the very least, Augenbaum says the diverse culinary cultures of Judaism and the giant African continent go very well together. Take JewFro’s reuben sandwich – traditional corned beef, “zulu-style kraut” and Swiss cheese coupled with exotic African spices on rye.

“When we finally put it together the first time, I was just like, ‘Holy …’ I’m not supposed to say this on the radio, right? But it just blew our minds. The Awaze that we put into the Russian dressing is an Ethiopian spice blend, and then we’re doing a ras el hanout, which is both Tunisian and Egyptian, in the slaw that goes on the sandwich as well.”

Time will tell if Virginia is ready for these radical new combinations, but the Richmond restauranteurs are already betting on success – planning to open a Soul Taco and a Jewfro side by side in downtown Raleigh this fall.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief