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Slow Boat to Monrovia

When I exit the subway at my stop, Nostrand Avenue, the scene recalls great West African markets like Dakar's Sandaga or Abidjan's Treicheville: hair-braiding salons abound, tailor shops sprout like millet after the harmattan, and until the fall weather drives the color under wraps, boubous billow in the breeze. It's a shock, however, to spot a buba-and-lapa when driving through the red-sauce zones of Staten Island. Yet a West African community has established a beachhead there and vigorously maintains its identity with churches, shops, and, yes, restaurants. Discovering the enclave when a colleague asked me to accompany her on a romp through the island's African eateries, I was especially taken with Korto's Place.

Korto's is situated off Bay Street, the main drag paralleling the shoreline, near an underpass that seems more conducive to drug deals than dining. But as far as proprietor Esther Brown is concerned, this is her little bit of the motherland. Malian mud-cloth curtains and tablecloths and Senufo wall hangings of ostriches set the mood at a lunch stop popular with taxi drivers, businessmen, and expatriate families who want to make sure that their children know fufu as well as fries. The music was classic Al Green, but the feel very much evokes the small momma-run joints of West Africa, where a woman's culinary expertise is transformed into household cash. The menu is simple and rotates throughout the week.

On my first visit, I was seduced by collard greens that seemed an ideal way to celebrate my hyphenated heritage. My grandma would have recognized the verdant stew that made the familiar exotic with fresh beef and bits of sweated onion— sumptuous and only mildly spicy, with a saucer of minced hot chile provided so that the diner can doctor them up to taste. My colleague, a lunchtime regular, selected the palm butter stew: bits of mixed meats floating in a pleasantly oleous sauce with the characteristic nutty flavor of palm kernels. Beverages ran the gamut from water to orange pop, but you may bring your own beer for an authentic alcoholic tipple. With all mains at a reasonable $6.50 in and $7 takeout, I decided I'd have to learn how to hop the ferry.

Esther Brown shows off the collards, spinach, and fried fish of her Bay Street Haven.
photo: Michael Kenneth Lopez
Esther Brown shows off the collards, spinach, and fried fish of her Bay Street Haven.

Details

Korto's Place
69 Prospect Street, Staten Island, 718-981-4306.
Open Mon to Fri 12pm to 7:30pm, Saturday 12pm- 9pm No credit cards.

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When I returned solo several weeks later, I was distressed to find the place shuttered when the sign indicated it was open. A flurry of knocks on the door produced a harried Ms. Brown, who explained that her help had not shown up. Since she too was solo, some dishes were not ready, but except for the fufu, which would be done in 10 minutes, everything I'd been hoping for was already prepared. At the appointed time, the proprietor returned with a steaming bowl of wonderfully elastic pounded yam (or perhaps corn) mash, accompanied by a spinach stew mined with tasty bits of fish that was just the right consistency for sopping. The fried fish was an enormous steak covered with minced bell pepper and onion, which reappeared as the seasoning for the rice pilau. I zapped it up a bit from the omnipresent saucer of chile, ate my fill, and headed out toward Nostrand Avenue musing on the ever-evolving Africanization of the Apple.

 
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