Shyam Dausoa cannot verify the claim, but he figures his business, Chez Dodo, is the only food cart or restaurant in the United States that serves food from the tiny African island of Mauritius.
“I Google it all the time, but nothing comes up,” said Dausoa, who was born and raised in a village in Mauritius. He pulled out his iPhone, opened his Facebook account, and showed me a group for Mauritians who live in the US. “There are only about 700 of us in this country.”
On April 11, Dausoa opened his second Mauritian food cart, this time at the Portland International Airport. The menu and décor replicate those of his original establishment (427 SW Stark), opened in 2012 to rave reviews from devoted fans on Yelp. But gone is the map of Africa with a circle around Mauritius that still hangs on the window of his downtown location.
“At this point, people love the food and are no longer trying to figure out where Mauritius is,” Dausoa said with a wide smile.
But figuring out where Mauritius is—and what it is—has always been a goal. The country boasts one of the highest income levels per capita for the entire continent of Africa. It also boasts remarkable political stability and world-class resorts, the latter of which provides a reliable source of income for the island’s residents.
For Dausoa, who grew up speaking Mauritian Creole, his country’s varied history led to a food culture that he says is like none other. Mauritius was once under Dutch, French, and British rule and experienced massive immigration from India, as well as extensive trade relations with China and the Middle East.
When he opened his business in 2012, he decided to call it Chez Dodo, which he admits is an odd name for a food cart, given that the dodo is a flightless bird. It’s also extinct, and today the term “dodo” is often used to describe someone who’s incompetent.
But Katie Thornton, his business partner who works full time as a nurse practitioner in Portland, likes the idea of reclaiming the word. “People know about the dodo bird. So they know about Mauritius. They just don’t know they know,” she said.
Shyam never imagined he would settle in Portland or that he would be running America’s only Mauritian food joint. He was born in Mauritius in 1982, studied tourism management, and figured he would work at one of the island’s luxury hotels. But in the early 2000s, he had an opportunity to work as a butler with the ruling royal family of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
Growing tired of that work he eventually moved to California in 2007 where he trained at various hotels. He bounced around the West Coast before settling in Reno, Nevada, where he worked for an Indian restaurant. It was there that he met his wife Laura, who, like Katie, is also a nurse practitioner.
“In Dubai, I was not allowed to make eye contact with any woman,” Dausoa said, when I asked him how the two met. “And my wife Laura must have thought it was funny to see this waiter who was not looking at her in the eye.”
Laura moved to attend OHSU for her studies and Dausoa accompanied her. “Portland reminded me of home,” he said. “I am not sure why.”
He struggled to find work, though, eventually running motels owned by Indian immigrants. “One night, after I heard gunshots by the motel, I told myself I have something bigger to contribute to this world,” he said.
But it took years to make Chez Dodo a reality. He began cooking meals at home and selling them to local grocery stores. Eventually Whole Foods contacted him and he started preparing Mauritian food for their buffet section. That led to him creating his first food cart in 2012, which quickly closed due to poor sales. After finding another location downtown—across from the Multnomah County Health Department and adjacent to the Club Rouge strip club—his business immediately took off.
Dausoa’s food throws your palate into confusion in the best way possible. His Mine Frire ($7 for a half order and up) combines pan-fried yakisoba noodles with mixed vegetables. It’s a testament to the diversity of Mauritius, as well as Dausoa’s mastery of French cooking. His portions are so massive and delightful that you’ll be too stuffed to Google how long it would take to fly to Mauritius (about 30 hours, in case you’re wondering).
His Mee Foon is similar, albeit with rice noodles, and I tried it with chicken ($6 for a half order). It was good but I much preferred the vegan Dholl Puri ($6), which he describes as an island flatbread with crushed lentils and spices. I absolutely loved it, especially when paired with one of his famous Shyamosas ($6 per piece). Douse the Shyamosa with his incredible mint chutney and you might even forget you’re sitting at an airport.
Dausoa, who’s known to give customers extra food without charging, said he’s indebted to Portland for influencing his Shyamosas. A few years after opening his food cart, some “stoners” (as he calls them) asked him to create a samosa that was larger and vegan friendly. That’s how his version of the Mauritian samosa was born, which he modestly named Shyamosa after his own name.
Looking at a plate of two massive mini-football sized Shyamosas, Dausoa laughed and said, “When I look at this dish, I see Chinese, Creole, French, African, Indian, and—now, thanks to some stoners—even a Portland influence on Mauritian food.” E+D
Zahir Janmohamed is the co-host of the Racist Sandwich podcast. Follow him @raceandfood