For Lawrence Eguakun, it all started with potluck dinners at the high-tech company he worked for, where he would bring West African rice, vegetables and other dishes for his co-workers to enjoy. Out of all the food, Eguakun’s would be finished first, and that is how he found out people loved the food he made.
Watching people love his cooking surprised him. Even growing up in Nigeria, Eguakun would watch his mother cook all of the time, but he never thought much about it.
“If someone told me I would be cooking [in the future], I would have just laughed at the person,” Eguakun says.
Eguakun came to the United States at age 28. When his previous job in the technology industry didn’t work out, Eguakun saw the opportunity to explore his cooking and began a catering business in 1994 with a focus on catering traditional foods for African events in the community.
Four years later, Eguakun opened his first restaurant: World Beat Cafe. It was located on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd and Nueces St., close to The University of Texas at Austin campus.
“A lot of people did not know about West African food,” Eguakun says. “When they came in, they would think it was Ethiopian food.”
When customers come in asking for Ethiopian food, Eguakun encourages them to try his West African food.
“I [would] give them my food and say, ‘Look, eat this food, and if you’re not happy then don’t pay,’” Eguakun remarks.
He still tells this to uneasy customers to this day, and no one has ever asked for their money back.
Eguakun ran World Beat Cafe for eight years but had to close the restaurant in 2006 when he was diagnosed with a rare kind of T-cell lymphoma. He was given a 15% chance of survival and moved to Houston while he underwent treatment. Then, after five months of treatment, Eguakun went into remission.
When he came back, his customers were waiting for him. Knowing he was healthy, they began asking him to open the restaurant back up. Although he wanted to, at the time, Eguakun didn’t have the money because of his medical bills. So, as a compromise, a customer inquired about his thoughts on a food truck.
“The only food trucks I knew in the day were the taco trucks that drive around town,” Eguakun says with a laugh.
In 2011, that same customer donated money to Eguakun so that he was able to rent a food truck and eventually buy it.
While he still cooked the same food, Eguakun renamed his food truck business to Wasota African Cuisine. Wasota comes from the neighborhood his family lived in, Uwasota. Eguakun dropped the U off to make the name easier for people to remember. And when the food truck first began, it was not serving just vegan food.
“I used to do everything — all kinds of meat, chicken and fish — but I have always been vegan,” Eguakun says. “I have never been a meat eater, but because I cooked it, I had to taste the meat.”
Three years ago, Eguakun realized that he could go completely vegan if he just rebranded his food truck to serve a vegan-only menu. Thus, in 2018, Wasota Vegan Paradise was born. Now, everything on the menu is vegan, and Eguakun prides himself on only using the freshest ingredients to create his own version of West African food that is very healthy. He pours his heart and soul into preparing food that his customers will love and that will make them feel good.
“The biggest ingredient in my food is love,” Eguakun says. “If you love what you do and you love the people who eat your food, you make sure what you cook for them is good.”
Eguakun jokes that while the first ingredient is love, the second is tomatoes, as most everything on the menu is tomato based. “If you like tomatoes, you will never have any problem with my food,” Eguakun says.
However, Eguakun wants to accommodate all of his customers. If a customer doesn’t like tomatoes, for example, he will take the time to prepare them something special and delicious, sans tomato.
When asked what his favorite dish on the menu is, Eguakun laughs. “A lot of customers who come for the first time ask me what my favorite is,” Eguakun says. “I tell them that I don’t have a favorite because if I can’t eat the food then I can’t sell it.”
However, one of his customers believes that Eguakun’s favorite is the V8, which has black-eyed peas, spinach and fried plantains, and has dubbed it “Larry’s Favorite” after Lawrence. The customer posted the name on his social media and Eguakun now gets a lot of requests for “Larry’s Favorite.”
Even with the “Larry’s Favorite” trend, Eguakun says that the most popular dish is still the Wasota Vegan Platter. It is also the most expensive on the menu at $15 a plate. He believes that it is the most popular because it has a variety of foods including jollof rice, black-eyed peas, sauteed spinach, fried plantains and black-eyed pea fritters, which Eguakun compared to a vegan hushpuppy.
At the end of the day, Eguakun cooks for his customers.
“I care for my customers,” Eguakun remarks. “They are my family and my bosses. I always tell people that I work with that I am not their boss. The boss is the person who comes to pay for the food. Whether they come with flip flops or a suit, they are our bosses. I enjoy cooking because my customers appreciate it and appreciate me. That is why I love it.”
Wasota Vegan Paradise is located at 701 E. 53rd St.