Looking for Sudanese food in the Bay Area? Welcome to Z Zoul

A family of three standing in front or a mural picturing a Sudanese woman- Sudanese food
Courtesy of Kiva.org

The Bay Area is known for its diversity but does not have many African restaurants. Aref Elgali brings Sudanese food and hospitality to the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco. 

Even in the Tenderloin, the Z Zoul Cafe stands out. The Tenderloin has some of the only affordable housing in the Bay Area, but investment in the area has been minimal.  Some people feel the neighborhood has little to offer but to others, it means a fresh start.

This is where Aref Elgaali’s journey began. On Eddy Street, in the heart of the Tenderloin, sits Z Zoul Cafe. It’s the Bay Area’s only Sudanese cafe.

The owner of Z Zoul, Sudanese exile and refugee Aref Elgaali, is one of the many welcoming faces in the Tenderloin.

Aref Elgaali opened Z Zoul last year. While authentic Sudanese food in San Francisco may be surprising to some, it’s not so unusual for the neighborhood. It may come as a shock that one of the smallest neighborhoods in the city is also one of the most diverse. It is home to a plethora of ethnic foods because so many different groups live there.

Many buildings are rent-controlled, so rental units are a great starting point for refugees and immigrants like Aref. The low rent encourages immigrants with dreams of a stable life in America to open their own businesses.

Sudanese food isn’t the only thing Aref brings to  the USA – he also brings his story.

He was exiled from Sudan and spent most of his life abroad. Educated in India and Egypt, he made his home in Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, after four decades of living in Saudi Arabia, he wasn’t treated like a citizen and was forced to apply for residency. It was not a simple process; he had to fill out a new application every year. Aref wanted to feel at home in his country, not like a temporary visitor.

In March 2016, with his and his family’s future in mind, Aref emigrated to California. Some of his siblings were already living in California. The move meant temporarily losing his housing, job, and any comfort in his life. In California, he shared a five-bedroom house with 20 family members for months.

During this time, he applied for asylum status. The most important thing to him was first being granted provisional asylum. Provisional asylum would allow him to work while awaiting a final decision.

After being granted provisional asylum, Aref purchased a car with a friend’s help. The car gave him new freedom to work as a Lyft driver. That job gave him the chance to learn the area better and to meet people who had successfully moved there.

During that time he thought about opening a restaurant. For Aref it was about more than just Sudanese food: it was about his culture.

The Tenderloin is a melting pot of different cultures and backgrounds, but Aref didn’t see his culture represented there at all.

So he spent long hours with his brother Mohannad making Sudanese food. He learned quickly which Sudanese food was most popular among his American customers, such as falafel and shawarma. His dishes are authentic and introduce foods many residents may not be used to eating, in addition to crowd favorites.

Even the coffee is authentic, with beans grown near an Ethiopian camp for Sudanese refugees and purchased through a non-profit. Most importantly, the food is delicious. The reviews on sites like Google Maps, Yelp, and Grubhub are overwhelmingly positive.

Aref is now a symbol of success for others. No longer a refugee seeking a place to belong, he has made his own home.

The gorgeous mural that adorns the wall in Z Zoul has taken on new meaning. On the mural, the Arabic phrase “We are one” is repeated around a woman mending a map of Sudan.

For Aref, it represents who he is. He says, “This is my vision, we are all one, doesn’t matter whether we are from U.S., Sudan, Asia, whatever, we are all one. We better help each other live in peace.” His journey to self-reliance and stability started with his dream of selling Sudanese food.

Refugees shaking hands

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About Akudo McGee
Akudo McGee is a recent graduate from the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. McGee has a Masters degree in European studies. Her field of focus is forced migration.