Chapter Two: Wasota African Cuisine
Trailer presents a second chance for locally-loved chef
By Gracie Salem, 11:00AM, Wed. Oct. 30, 2013
Sitting quietly at the corner of Bluebonnet and S. Lamar is an unassuming trailer draped with banners printed in the red, green, and yellow colors of the African flag. Wasota African Cuisine, it reads, formerly World Beat Cafe.
Those who called Austin home before its explosion of population, traffic, and restaurants might remember World Beat Cafe, nestled just south of campus at Martin Luther King and Neuces. And if you remember World Beat Cafe, there is little doubt that you remember its chef and owner, Lawrence Eguakun. But that was before 2006 when his whole world changed.
Today, he steps out of his small, utilitarian trailer into the afternoon sun, a little reluctant to have his picture taken, but clearly eager to tell his story. It is a tale of his working hard and creating success; a story of nearly losing everything, including his own life; and most recently, the story of starting all over again.
He was born in Benin City, Nigeria into a large family. In 1983, a then 28-year-old, Lawrence Eguakun was urged by friends already studying in the United States to move to Texas. While he had been accepted by other universities in other parts of the country, Eguakun says ultimately he chose Austin for the weather: it was most like home. “The climate was conducive. We don’t have winters there. We only have a rainy season and sunshine.”
After graduating from Huston-Tillotson University with a degree in Business Administration, Eguakun found himself more interested in music and food than much of anything else. He booked African and Caribbean bands at Liberty Lunch and brought potluck dishes from his native Nigeria to office parties. He always received compliments and elbows of encouragement to do what he loved. Growing up an admittedly picky eater, his mother, having grown tired of his particular tastes told him, “If you don’t like it, go cook for yourself.” And so he did.
He bought an old burger joint on MLK in 1999 and opened World Beat Cafe, purposefully blending a hearty, affordable, international menu with an atmosphere aimed at getting people to hang out. He liked its proximity to UT, but “It was so close, yet so far away. I had to be creative to bring people in there.” He booked live music nightly and staged poetry readings. “If you sat there for half an hour," he recalls, “you would hear music from Asia, Africa, India, France. It was a place for people to come hang out. There was no such thing as wi-fi then."
“I miss the place really. I came to know all my customers by name; they became my friends. Even the Caucasian students going to UT would call me Uncle Lawrence. I wasn’t just a businessman, you know. Because you see a kid who comes to eat in your place and some day you sense that he is not happy. You just go sit with him. And his issues come out and you give him advice. It is one of the things I miss. I felt happy to come in to work.”
He looks up from our picnic table and excuses himself to go cook for two young women who are looking over the extensive menu, the endless combinations of homemade options.
When he returns, he says, “I used to tell the customers, 'If you have money, come eat. If you don’t have money, come eat. Just don’t abuse it.'” He looks across the large parking lot where his trailer now sits and slaps his leg absently with a rolled up piece of paper. “You know, I was blessed.”
And then, just before 2006, he began to wake in the night with a dry throat, one he describes as “sizzling”. What was initially pegged as a simple sinus infection led to throat surgery and to the discovery of a tumor. He was eventually diagnosed with an extremely rare form of T-cell lymphoma and given a 15 percent chance of surviving. When he found out about the cancer, friends advised him to read everything he could about it, but he didn’t and partly credits his “ignorance” of cancer with his overcoming it. He refused to educate himself, saying today, with a bit of a chuckle, “Nope. What you don’t know won’t kill you.
He moved to Houston temporarily to be closer to his treatments at M.D. Anderson and his radiologist, a woman from Lebanon, who took a particular interest in his case because it was so rare. “Doctors from other hospitals would come and take my blood to study it because they had never seen a case as bad as mine.” After long bouts of radiation and chemotherapy, he went in for a check up. “They looked at me,” he says, and pauses for a long moment. “And they said: 'You look good.'” He smiles and shakes his head. He says the special interest paid to him by his doctor was what saved his life. “That woman was my angel.” Lawrence Eguakun has been cancer free for seven years now. “When I go it for my check ups these days, they say, ‘Here comes the Miracle Man’.”
But through all of that, it would have taken yet another miracle to save his World Beat Cafe. Even with health insurance, he couldn’t keep up with the day-to-day of the business with thousands and thousands of dollars coming out of pocket. His wife, Bridget, would work all week and drive to Houston to be with him on the weekends. He eventually had to file for bankruptcy in 2006. World Beat Cafe closed that same year.
“Even when I was closing, I didn’t tell my clients why I was closing. I was in the process of moving to 11th Street, a place close to Ms B’s, so I let people think we were closing for that reason. I didn’t want people to panic.” Some of his clientele even traveled to visit him in Houston.
And clearly many have remained loyal and excited about his return. A former World Beat Cafe customer fronted Eguakun the money to get his trailer for Wasota African Cuisine, telling him, “Go. Do it. If you ever make money, pay me back.” He smiles. “That’s how close I was to my customers.”
He pauses to call out to the young women who ordered plates earlier: “I hope you guys were happy with your food!” They come over. “Was the food okay?” he inquires.
“Oh my gosh,” one gushes. “It was so good. That spinach! That was the best spinach I have ever eaten!”
“Oh, you’re making my head look big now,” Lawrence laughs.
Wasota African Cuisine trailer opened in August of 2011, initially on S. First Street and now on S. Lamar, where Lawrence hopes more partner trailers will join the lot and more customers will try his delicious food again.
For some, Wasota’s menu can be intimidating in its enormity, but Eguakun is happy to help with suggestions, insisting his food is simple in preparation and inspiration. Tomato, ginger, garlic, and onions are the base of most everything. “One dish with 15 ingredients? That’s not my food.” His influences are Ethiopian, Senegalese, Nigerian, and even American.
“I try to appeal to everyone. I don’t have thousands of Nigerians coming to see me here. 98 percent of my clients are American. Food is progressive. It has to change,” he says.
Clearly it is hard not to look back through eyes of what could have been: “If I had not gotten sick, I think I would have a very successful restaurant now,” he muses. But Eguakun is here, still working hard, long hours. Except on Mondays, when he plays tennis. A sport he loves with a clear passion, he has been playing since he was 12 years old. “No matter what, you will find me playing tennis on Mondays.”
Another guest calls out a "thank you" as he gets in his car and drives away.
At the Wasota trailer, you will find him with virtually the same menu as before, passing small tastes of black eyed peas or Jollof rice through the window of his trailer. He doesn’t howl your name when your food is ready. He comes down and delivers his plates to you at your picnic table, showing his gracious nature, his innate desire to make his guests happy.
“That is all I can ask for. You pay me money, you eat my food and say, ‘Thank you’. They don’t have to do that. But you heard that guy: Thank you. And those kids: Thank you, they said. It’s a blessing for people to like what you do.”
Eguakun still has hopes and dreams, perhaps of another restaurant someday, but he sits squarely with the reality of his situation. More and more people from back in the day are coming to seek him out at the trailer. “When they come look for me, it brings tears to my eyes.”
Wasota African Cuisine
2323 S. Lamar (at Bluebonnet St.)
Tues-Fri 11am - 9pm
Sat-Sun 12 - 9pm