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Melrose Avenue and its extension Webster Avenue form the backbone of the African Bronx. One sweltering afternoon, Brian and I set out to eat in all the African restaurants we could find along a two-mile stretch. Cruising north from the Hub, we spied an awning at 160th Street emblazoned—with pleasing directness—Bronx African Restaurant. Contrasting with the area’s burned-out frame houses and weedy lots, the cheery interior featured green-upholstered booths and, plastered on the wall like pelts from a polyester safari, rugs in leopard and zebra patterns.
After we lingered by the kitchen door a few moments, the cook emerged in a cloud of steam, smiling and waving a wooden spoon. Although a crayon menu listed Guinean fare of the most appealing sort—including lamb chops, leaf-based sauces, the cassava porridge tô, and something I’d never heard of called fonjo—the only thing available at that hour was chicken soup ($6). Of course, it was nothing like what you’d get in a diner or a deli. First, a cumbrous plate of Uncle Ben’s arrived, looking as if each individual grain had been polished and arranged. Next came a modest bowl heaped with chicken wings and backs mired in red sauce. Though the actual quantity of poultry barely filled a serving spoon, the rich sauce was unutterably delicious, tasting of palm oil and bay leaf. We vigorously applied a fiery yellow condiment that looked like moist cornmeal.
Pressing further northward, smacking our lips and wondering how we could eat any more, we humped over the Harlem and New Haven railyard, fringed by crumbling industrial buildings from which most of the industries seemed to have departed. Skirting the Butler House projects, we pulled up in front of God’s Time Is the Best, a Ghanaian café sporting a bright awning in the national colors of green, red, and yellow, with bottles of Alafia Bitters neatly arranged in the window. The label showed a smiling man in a wild plaid coat, noting “it cleanses the colon during constipation” and “removes phlegms and serves as an appetizer.” We skipped the appetizer and headed straight for the steam table. Behind thick Plexiglas, it runs the length of the restaurant and features over a score of dishes, mainly meat stews, veggie purees, and fried and steamed whole fish. What to order? For mash, it was easy—foil-wrapped loaves of kenkey beckoned. As for what to eat with that skunky cornmeal mash, we behaved like kids in a candy shop, selecting black-eyed peas, a dark lamb stew, and a thick sauce of crushed melon seeds called egusie.
Years ago an African-born Brooklyn Tech teacher, Mr. Pratt, told me that the city’s sole Sierra Leonean restaurant lay on Webster Avenue, but only recently did I discover its exact whereabouts. B.B. African and American Restaurant sits almost directly beneath the Cross Bronx Expressway, making things easy for its gypsy-cab patrons. The proprietor is Guinean, but his wife (the cook) hails from Sierra Leone, and the menu is a combo of cuisines. While our beef in peanut sauce could have come from any kitchen in West Africa, the dense cassava-leaf sauce was unique. It didn’t take us long to figure out the thickener: peanuts. Thanks again, George Washington Carver!