Twenty years ago, the typical West African restaurant in the city was a small, badly lit room with mismatched furniture, and little in the way of décor besides a tribal mask or two. The shades were often pulled down tight, and the gates barely raised, discouraging casual visitors from barging in—though those who persevered received a warm welcome. The bill of fare was limited to three dishes per day, and there was no printed menu. For outsiders, dining in these semisecret enclaves was exhilarating, filled with fascinating flavors that included bright-orange palm oil, unfamiliar green herbs, and smoky dried stockfish.
I spotted my first Ghanaian restaurant in University Heights in 1994. Located in a region north of the Cross Bronx Expressway whose steep hills and step streets might remind you of San Francisco, African American Restaurant was a tiny steam-table joint that offered the inspired combination of Ghanaian mashes and American soul food, mainly to cab drivers. Two years later, another place, Ebe Yie Yie, opened under the IRT 4 tracks on Jerome Avenue. Leap like an antelope forward to 2011: The area has become a hotbed of Ghanaian eats, serving a burgeoning commercial community that manages import-export houses, textile shops, hair salons, and groceries.
Over a two-week period recently, I toiled up and down the thoroughfares of University Heights and adjacent neighborhoods looking for Ghanaian restaurants, and happened upon three exceptional ones. Installed in some surprisingly high-end real estate, Papaye (which means “Doing Good”) occupies a large storefront on a busy Grand Concourse corner. The dining room is all windows, and a menu above a rear counter shows numbered color pictures of the soup, mash, and meat combos that make up most meals.
The number one is the best intro: emo tuo and peanut-butter soup ($12), a white bowl of thin gravy tinted red with palm oil, tasting faintly of goobers. (If you’re accustomed to Senegalese mafe, which features a thick peanut sauce, this soup offers a pleasing contrast.) Into the peanut potage the cook has knocked golf balls of emo tuo, made of rice so extensively pounded that the grain structure vanishes. You’ll find ragged hunks of beef and bits of dried stockfish in there, too, making for a rich and elusive flavor, plus a gooey wad of black-eyed peas, a quintessential Ghanaian ingredient added to your soup as a bonus.
Papaye is also a great place to become acquainted with the West African staple joloff rice ($10), a baked quarter-chicken on rice colored carmine with tomato paste. A roast fish may be substituted for the bird. If the entrées aren’t spicy enough for you, ask for shito (pronounced “shee-toe”), a hot sauce that comes in two permutations at Papaye—black and red. The first is seedy, fishy, and jet-black; the second, made with fresh tomatoes, resembles Mexican pico de gallo.
Located on a side street a half-block from Jerome Avenue, Uptown African Restaurant must have once been a Dominican honky-tonk, the balcony and dance floor now covered with neatly arranged tables. A color photo depicts Barack Obama and President John Evans Fiifi Atta Mills of Ghana as if brothers. Go for the pepper soup, an off-menu standard that involves gelatinous cow foot and sinewy beef chunks in a fiery, sweat-inducing broth. Associated with northern Ghana, a version of the emo tuo called tuo zafi ($10) features larger orbs of mashed rice in a brown soup topped with a verdant mucilaginous sauce of crushed leaves.
Named after the seaside capital of Ghana, the restaurant called Accra is situated on a hilly curve of Burnside Avenue. The tropical-hut décor from a previous Dominican occupant persists in the rear dining room. The front room is dominated by a steam table so massive, it must contain nearly everything ever eaten in Ghana. Rather than order from the 100-item menu, choose a mash (choices run to pounded yam; plantain fufu; amala, made from yam-skin flour; and fermented cassava banku), then push your cafeteria tray down the metal runway picking dishes you like the looks of. There’s a tripe stew, a dish of boiled eggs perched on spinach, roasted guinea fowl, fried fish in sauce, and a rough smash of broken black-eyed peas called wachey. If the latter looks familiar, it’s because wachey is a dead ringer for the American soul-food staple hoppin’ john—which preceded Ghanaian restaurants to America by at least two centuries.