The peanut-dusted lamb kebabs called suya from northern Nigeria, available at Brooklyn’s Buka
In the late ’80s, the typical Senegalese immigrant was a guy who furtively sold counterfeit watches and handbags on the street. He took his meals at temporary restaurants set up in SRO hotels rooms around Times Square (the city’s first “pop-ups”), with female cooks who had been imported from Dakar to provide the voluminous midday meals of cheb, mafe, and yassa the men craved.
In quick succession other West Africans arrived — Guineans, Malians, Ghanaians, Nigerians, and Ivory Coasters being the main groups. And gradually the eating establishments of these ambitious and hard-working entrepreneurs grew to be full-fledged restaurants, just as they sought out more legitimate businesses to pursue.
Women adept at both the tribal and urban cooking of West Africa eventually appeared, and the quality of food improved as more and more raw materials were imported and African groceries popped up in diverse neighborhoods in Harlem, Clinton Hill, University Heights, Flatbush, and Hollis, and along White Plains Road in the Bronx.
This ranked list of 10 constitutes a thumbnail picture of West African restaurants today, more friendly to outsiders than ever before, and possessing, in most cases, all the amenities you’d expect from a full-blown restaurant (with the exception of alcohol — many of the places are Muslim). Visit them and enjoy some of the tastiest and most unusual food in the city, and be prepared to eat with your right hand if you prefer.
The Ghanaian hot sauce called shito comes in two forms at the Bronx’s Papaye.
Joloff offers “Senegalese Specialties” and a baobab tree mural. (Click to enlarge.)
10. Joloff — This long-running Senegalese in Clinton Hill, small as it is, offers creature comforts such as plush furniture and table service, and a full Senegalese menu served all day, including appetizers such as boulettes (ground-fish balls something like meatballs), fried plaintains with dipping sauce, and wonderful little fish turnovers. 930 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, 718-636-4011
9. B.B. African and American — A block south of the Bronx Expressway, B.B. provides a winning combination of food from both Guinea and Sierra Leone. Look for leaf-based sauces served with polished rice, and a warm welcome from the staff. We heard about this unique restaurant from a history teacher at Brooklyn Tech High School. 1715 Webster Avenue, Bronx, 718-731-7992
8. Papaye — This Ghanaian steam-table joint has been written up in the Times, and you can’t get more aboveground than that. The bright corner space is a pleasure, and eaily accessible by the D train, which stops one block away. Color pictures suggest combinations of mash, soup, and meat (or fish or poultry), and what could be easier? 2300 Grand Concourse, Bronx, 718-676-0771
Omo tuo (pounded rice balls) with cow foot and black-eyed peas in a light peanut sauce, at Papaye
At Buka (“Eating House”), goat shank stew comes in a tomato sauce with a relish of egusi — ground melon seeds that seem like scrambled eggs.
7. Le Grand Dakar — A mere six tables furnish this Senegalese postage-stamp-size restaurant, which doubles as a nightclub, so you may find yourself sitting next to the band — which can make your meal wonderful, especially if you like the music. The menu, too, is limited, but the cheb (the national dish of fish and vegetables over flavored rice) is totally authentic — and delicious! 285 Grand Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-398-8900
6. Buka — Nigerian food, with its mashes, soups, peanut-dusted brochettes, and bean porridges, has never had such an upscale setting as Buka, located on the border between Clinton Hill and Bed-Stuy. Alcohol is available, too, in the lounge in front or in the spacious back room. Watch the chalkboard outside for specials: Just yesterday it was African land snails. 946 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, 347-763-0619
5. La Galette — While most Senegalese restaurants are devoutly Muslim and offer no alcohol, the obscurely located La Galette serves wine, with a menu that elevates national standards and offers a West African take on French food, too, the way it’s made in the streets of Dakar. This is a great place to eat nems, the North Vietnamese spring rolls that caused a sensation when they were introduced to the Senegalese capital 60 years ago. 177 East 100th Street, 212-410-6361
Anyone who ever loved peanut butter sandwiches will feel the same way about La Galette’s mafe (chicken in peanut sauce).
Senegal’s national dish, Tiebou Dienn (“cheb” for short) was supposedly inspired centuries ago by paella. Here’s Dibiterie’s version, rich with vegetables and stuffed fish.
4. Dibiterie Cheikh — In contrast to La Galette, Dibiterie Cheikh is named after the founder of the Sufi-based Marabout branch of Islam. The other half of the name, “Dibiterie,” refers to a place specializing in charcoal-grilled lamb chops. Served in the evening, those are spectacular, while lunchtime is reserved for the traditional cuisine of Senegal, which includes cheb, mafe (peanut sauce with lamb or chicken), and yassa (fish or chicken with a mustard-onion relish). 231 West 116th Street, 212-663-0717
3. Accra — The city’s most ambitious Ghanaian restaurant (named after the capital) offers over 100 scrumptious dishes, which you can admire on the mile-long steam table. This arrangement also allows you to pick and choose those you like best. Go conservative with a roast fish or chicken and polished rice with relish, or go wild with slimy leaf-based sauces, okra- and black-eyed-pea-based dishes, or boiled eggs and greens flavored with dried stockfish. 2041 Davidson Avenue, Bronx, 718-584-8300
2. Fatima — Don’t be deterred by the very modest nature of this Crown Heights establishment, which slings the very best Guinean food in town. A steam table has been installed, which allows you to dash in, select what you want, have it weighed, and chow down. Ask the attendant to point out the cassava-leaf or potato-leaf sauces, richly dotted with lamb or beef, and request the fiery scotch-bonnet sauce called pima. 789 Franklin Avenue, Brooklyn, no phone
The leaf-based sauces of Guinea (potato-leaf on the left, manioc-leaf on the right) are perfectly reproduced at Crown Heights’ Fatima. They’ll make you feel like Popeye.
Maima’s plantain fufu; dry rice to the left
1. Maima’s — This cheerful spot a few blocks south of downtown Jamaica — featured in this year’s Choice Eats — is the city’s only Liberian restaurant, run by immigrants from a country founded by slaves freed after the American Civil War. Specialties you should try include “dry rice” (not dry in the least, cooked with okra and bitter ball — a type of eggplant), pepper shrimp (made incendiary with the spice called grains of paradise), plantain fufu, and mixed-meat soup. 106-47 Guy R. Brewer Boulevard, Queens, 718-206-3538
Maima’s pepper shrimp showcases the spice called grains of paradise.