This past Sunday a group of adventurous LTHers spent the afternoon sampling West African food in Uptown.
Laikom and I had been talking about trying out African restaurants for a while, so recently I started doing a little research. It turns out many of Chicago’s West Africans live in Uptown, close to the Wilson Red Line Station. I’d driven through this part of town many times but never realized how many African restaurants and other establishments there were in such close proximity to each other. As we were walking around we saw a large group of people dressed in beautiful, traditional outfits going to church, a group of older African men hanging out in a restaurant watching the Olympics together, a graduation party being set-up in one restaurant, and a baby shower in full tilt at another restaurant. I was really surprised to find out about such a vibrant community of immigrants so close to my house that I was completely oblivious to until now.
Overall the food was very good. We made it to 5 restaurants total, and I’d say I didn’t eat a bad meal at any of them. When Laikom and I toured Vietnamese restaurants on Argyle last December
, I was disappointed by how many lousy restaurants there were. With the African options in Uptown, the food ranged from good to great and made for a very enjoyable afternoon of eating.
Of the 5 restaurants, two were Ghanaian, and three were Nigerian. There are a lot of similarities between the two cuisines, though there are some minor differences. In general, the food is some kind of vegetable based stewed, topped with a healthy dose of palm oil, served with your choice of meat on top, and a side of fufu. Fufu is a major component of the cuisine. It’s made by boiling some kind of starchy vegetable (cassava, yams, etc) then pounding it until it has a doughy texture. You’re supposed to eat the food with your hands, using the fufu almost as an edible utensil to dip into the stew. The palm oil gives a lot of the food a reddish hue and makes it seem greasy, but it didn’t bother me since the stews are full of leafy vegetables and you dip starch into it. Also noteworthy is the often slimy texture of many of the dishes. So many Western recipes involving okra go to great lengths to minimize sliminess, whereas West African cuisine celebrates this texture. We theorized that they were using other ingredients than just okra to give a lot of the food a thick and satisfying sliminess that coated your mouth with flavor.
At the Nigerian restaurants, you order the dish based on what stew you want. Then they give you the option of different meats such as tilapia, goat, or chicken. They have tripe, cow leg, and other interesting bits on the menus but often we were only given a choice of fish, goat, or chicken. All the meats are prepared well done and some were dry, but at the better restaurants this didn’t bother us because the meat was still tender. Finally you decide what kind of fufu you want. The most common is white yam (iyan), but we also saw some cassava based ones. At the Ghanaian restaurants, your order the dish based on the type of fufu. Then you select the stew to go with it, then the meat that goes on top. This was interesting because they seemed to take more care in making the fufu and offered more interesting options. Also the Ghanaian restaurants had soap dispensers on the table and brought out wash bowls, and struggled to find silverware for us to eat with. Iyanze
We started the afternoon at Iyanze. Iyanze is owned by the same people who own Bolat and they were doing a fair amount of catering business when we were there. It’s right next to the train station on a busy stretch of Broadway, making it essentially the anchor restaurant of the neighborhood. They have by far the largest menu, and they have a large display of steam trays from which you order. In general the stews at Iyanze were quite flavorful and probably the spiciest we had in the neighborhood. The big standout at Iyanze was the ayamashe which is a green bell pepper stew. It had a robust spice profile and a unique roasted earthiness. This dish didn’t show up on any other menus, so perhaps it’s something of a signature dish. I also enjoyed the egusi (melon seed stew) and the efo (spinach stew) but we had renditions I liked more later in the day. Another standout was mashed beans with a spicy sweet sauce on top. This also was unique to Iyanze. The jollof rice (basically tomato rice with some spices) was pretty bland and the meats were pretty tough and chewy. Overall I enjoyed Iyanze and would return, but as we learned more about African cuisine, I realized that they are a fast food joint and the quality of the food reflects that. The stews were pretty good (they do well in steam trays) and the menu had the most variety, so I could see myself doing takeout or delivery from there in the future. But if I’m looking for a fun evening hanging out with friends, I’d go somewhere else.BQ Afro Root
BQ Afro Root is located on a quiet stretch of Kenmore St, a block off the main drag where Iyanze is. When we walked in, it took the waiter a couple minutes to get up and put together a table for our group. We sat around waiting for probably 10 minutes before he came and asked if we wanted menus. This could have been interpreted as indifference, but I think it was more a reflection of that fact that you’re expected to eat whatever they have prepared in the back. We looked over the menu and attempted to order a couple items, but quickly learned that most of the menu wasn’t available. So we left ourselves in the hands of the waiter and instructed him to bring only a couple dishes since we were trying to eat at multiple restaurants. He brought out a giant plate of everything they had in the back, which wasn’t particularly expensive, but made for a lot of leftovers. We had efo and egusi (same as at Iyanze) and opinions on them were mixed. I preferred them, particularly the efo, since the food had a more home-cooked quality to it. The spinach in the efo was more tender and tasted more of spinach with a pleasant fishiness from anchovies or something like that. But others (we were split 50/50 I think) preferred the bolder flavors at Iyanze. The jollof rice had a nice tomato-ey flavor but was otherwise unmemorable. The last dish was fried rice which had frozen vegetables and mini-shrimp mixed with flavorless yellow rice. Not sure why they felt the need to include that in the spread. As we were leaving I remarked that I could see them doing a really nice job if they knew a group were coming. It was probably the most mom-and-pop operation we saw and they had a group of older (presumably Nigerian) men enjoying a leisurely meal in the front of the restaurant while watching the Olympics, but the food just didn’t stand out.Grace
This was the first Ghanaian restaurant we visited and we immediately noticed a contrast. Grace’s was brightly lit and colorfully decorated with rhythmic upbeat music playing whereas the Nigerian places were more mellow. We were surprised to see soap dispensers on the table but realized what they were for when bowls of water were brought out for us to rinse our hands. When the food was delivered we asked for utensils and plates. The waiter had to go into the basement to fetch styrofoam plates and plastic forks for us. Clearly most of their customers eat with their hands. We noticed that each of the dishes on the menu listed the type of starch with a long list of stew options underneath. We ordered an okra stew, a peanut stew, and mashed black eyed peas along with a side of egusi so we could compare. The food at Grace’s was a unanimous choice as our favorite. The okra strew in particular had a rich and slimy (very slimy) texture that coated your mouth (and the fufu) with its spicy and vegetal flavor. The okra came with banku which is fufu made with fermented corn dough. It had a yeasty, sour-dough like flavor that really stood out when compared to all the other fufus we had. The peanut soup was served with yam fufu in the bowl so it was easier to scoop up and soaked up much of the nutty, flavorful broth. The black-eye beans was served with well-fried plantains and coated in an assertively spiced Indian curry-like sauce that really perked up the beans. Since the dishes were pretty different from what we’d had at the Nigerian places (though the same dishes are offered at Iyanze) we decided to order a side of egusi stew for comparison. The egusi stew was spectacular. It’s made with melon seeds, ground shrimp (I think), and spinach to create a unique combination of flavors and textures. The first two renditions we had were tasty but unremarkable. This version had the most spinach, which featured a roasted flavor that probably came from sticking to the pot when it’s cooking. The texture was fuller and it had a healthy coating of palm oil on top to give it richness. All the food at Grace had a nice, thick texture so it’s easy to scoop with fufu and reddish hue from liberal use of palm oil. Grace got many details right. The fufus were more interesting, the meats were well-done but still tender and flavorful, and the palm oil was present but not so much that it made the food heavy. There were a number of specials on the menu that require ordering in advance. I hope to return soon to try some more of that menu.Palace Gate
Palace Gate is also Ghanaian, and once again it was brightly decorated and upbeat music was playing. It’s more of a take-out joint than Grace’s, but they did have some seating. Once again there were soap dispensers on the table and they brought out wash bowls. There were advertisements for a graduation party that night and the kitchen had huge pots of stews ready to serve. We ordered the tuo zaafi, which we learned is a Sunday special. Tuo zaafi is the name of the fufu which is rice based and softer than the other fufus we had (though not particularly flavorful). It’s served with a spinach based soup which was pretty different than the other spinach-based dishes we had, but good in its own right. It was pretty spicy and had a ton of palm oil on top, probably a little more than I would’ve preferred. Also the rice based fufu was looser and wetter making it harder to scoop up the stew. The texture of the stew was nice and thick. We also had a spicy goat stew that had a rich, meaty broth and lots of fatty goat hunks. Last we ordered the kelewale which is fried plantains with peanuts. Everything was very good but lacked the attention to detail that made Grace’s special. The menu was bigger and the stews were quite tasty, but the meats were a little tough and the fufu closer to what we had at other places.Nigerian Kitchen
Our last stop of the day was at Nigerian Kitchen. When we arrived a baby shower was just getting started in the back room. They had some loud music playing that would spill out of the door whenever someone would walk back there. The restaurant itself was pretty mellow; the contrast with the Ghanaian joints was stark. We were running low on things we hadn’t tried but found a couple on the menu. Unfortunately they were out of ogbono which is a mango-seed based soup that I really wanted to try. We started off with an order of moi moi which is a steamed bean cake. It was ok but we were getting pretty starched out by this point. We got an order of the ewedu soup which is made with jute leaves. It has a unique flavor and was pretty tasty but sort of blended in with all the other greens-based stews we had over the course of the day. In place of the ogbono we ordered the okra stew that was thick and slimy like the one we had at Grace’s, but lacked some of the richness and spice. The highlight of the meal for me was the jollof rice. The rice had a firmer texture and the herbs (bayleaf in particular) balanced with the tomato flavor very well to make a more complex and interesting dish. The meal was very good and was probably my favorite of the Nigerian restaurants, but still lacked the brighter flavors that we experienced at the Ghanian restaurants.
Overall this was an eye-opening experience. I knew very little about West African cuisine before we started. Over the course of the day I was surprised to discover that West African cooking has a unique perspective both texturally (well-done but flavorful meats, doughy fufu, slimy, oily stews) and fundamentally (starch as a central ingredient, stews are used as a dipping sauce, meats are essentially a condiment). West African food may not have the same culinary legacy as other, better known cuisines, but the food was satisfying, delicious, and cheap. I will definitely be adding West African to my rotation of restaurants.
Iyanze - 4623 N Broadway St
BQ Afro Root – 4802 N Clark Ave
Grace African – 4409 N Broadway St
Palace Gate – 4548 N Magnolia Ave
Nigerian Kitchen – 1363 W Wilson Ave