As a freshman at Chico State in 2014, Wal Riek found himself suffering from a serious condition that afflicts many young people when they first strike out away from home: He missed his mother’s cooking.
Rather than despair, Riek committed to honing his own culinary skills. He spent hours in the kitchen and at the grill, taking what he’d picked up from his mom, combining it with new techniques and exploring different spices and ingredients to come up with his own takes on the classic barbecue, soul- and comfort-food dishes he loved.
“I went through a lot of trial and error, but before long I started making some magnificent dishes,” said Riek, who comes across as a pretty humble guy until it comes to describing his own cooking. Riek’s friends—themselves hungry students deprived of home cooking—were happy to serve as guinea pigs, and Riek’s food soon became the centerpiece at parties and Friendsgiving celebrations.
People began encouraging him to start a business based around his creations, and in 2017 Black Wal Street Café was born.
“Cafe,” in this case, is a virtual construct rather than a brick-and-mortar one: Riek conducts business via word-of-mouth and social media—these days primarily through Instagram—then cooks the food for pick-up. He also caters events throughout Northern California, including regular gigs in Sacramento and the Bay Area.
Regarding the name of his endeavor, Riek said it dates back to his playground days in the San Diego neighborhood of City Heights, where he grew up.
“Some older kids started calling me ‘Black Wal Street’, obviously because my name is Wal, and I thought. ‘OK, yeah, that sounds like a cool nickname.’
“A few years later, in junior high, I learned about what happened in Oklahoma,” he said, referring to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. Back then, that city’s predominantly black Greenwood neighborhood was the wealthiest African-American neighborhood in the United States and known as Black Wall Street. On May 31, white mobs attacked black residents’ homes and businesses, and at one point used private aircraft to drop firebombs on the area. After two days of violence, 35 square blocks were destroyed and between 150 and 300 people were killed.
“Once I learned there was some important history behind it, it felt important to keep the name,” Riek said.
Though in 2018 he took some time off from selling his dishes, he revived the venture late last year. He’s kicked things up a notch in recent months “as a side hustle during Covid times” and this time around is looking to appeal to patrons beyond the college crowd.
The Black Wal Street Café experience begins with a visit to an Instagram page Riek maintains (@blackwalstreetcafe) to peruse what can only be described as food porn. The pictures of perfectly grilled chicken and ribs, and videos of buttery shrimp sizzling in a pan and a huge tray filled with creamy, slightly crisped-at-the-top macaroni and cheese, are downright tantalizing.
Riek usually serves food on Saturdays, sometimes Sundays, and orders must be received by Thursday night. Payment is accepted via Venmo, Cash App or Apple Pay, and diners are asked to submit their order in the comments section while submitting payment. Riek then shops for ingredients to meet that week’s orders, spends a day cooking and alerts customers when their meals are ready for pickup (usually around 6 p.m.) from his house in The Avenues.
The cafe usually maintains a regular menu containing items like barbecued chicken (sold as combos with two sides, $13 for three pieces and $17 for five), barbecued ribs ($25 for a full rack, $15 for half) and Cajun-style fried catfish (three large pieces and two sides for $18). Sides like mac & cheese ($5 and one of the best-selling items) and dirty rice (deliciously seasoned and cooked with ground beef and chopped bell peppers, $3) are available individually, and Riek’s delectable biscuits ($1 each) or cornbread ($2 per serving) complete any meal.
Some weeks, the cafe offers specials. Recent examples include creamy Cajun pasta (spicy and containing sausage and shrimp, $12) and “Rafiki” fries—seasoned french fries topped with grilled chicken, steak or shrimp and drizzled with barbecue and chipotle sauce. Rafiki, Riek explained, is another of his nicknames, and he often applies it to his specialty items.
Besides school, Riek’s main gig is at an assisted-living facility, but his side hustle is arguably where his true passion lies. Asked if he’d like to make the endeavor a full-time project he said, “Oh yeah, I think about it all the time.” And, he has a plan.
“Everyone I know says Chico doesn’t have enough places that are open late with good food,” Riek said. “I’d like to open a shop where people can come enjoy themselves and get a good, real meal at like 10 or 11 at night.
“I’m looking to get a trailer and start doing that,” he said. “If that does well, and I know it will, then I’d eventually like to open a restaurant in the downtown Chico area.”