Located west of downtown Jamaica in an area known for its rough-hewn Dominican and Salvadoran bars and cafés, Mataheko looks like just another louche cocktail lounge, with smoke-dark windows and neon signs that seem to warn rather than beckon. No matter, the place is currently the city’s best Ghanaian restaurant. Inside, it’s like a beloved uncle’s rumpus room, with maple paneling, buff-colored banquettes that prance along one side of the chamber, monitors showing West African movies, mainly in French, and—miracle of miracles—a red-baize pool table, from which the click of lacquered balls happily resounds.
Named for a neighborhood in Accra, Ghana’s capital, Mataheko offers an expansive menu—though only half is actually available at any given time. Skip the sections devoted to soul food and Caribbean cooking, which constitute a tentative salute to the African diaspora. Why tentative? The cook stands ready to undertake their preparation, but yanking a bird from the freezer and turning it into fried chicken could take a lot longer than you’re willing to wait. Besides, much of the Ghanaian menu is so appealing, you’ll want to jump right in.
As with most African cuisines, Ghanaian cooking begins with a choice of starches. Your options run to white yam, plantain, cornmeal, and manioc, all kneaded to a silky texture and formed into oblong masses. At one extreme is pounded yam, white as a flag of surrender and blander than mashed potatoes, and an extremely mellow fufu made from plantains. At the other extreme, find banku and kenkey, composed of manioc and cornmeal fermented to achieve a puckering sourness. My favorite mash, though, is available only on Sundays: Omo-tuo consists of white rice pounded until only a suggestion of grains remains.
Once you’ve chosen your starch, it’s time to pick the “soup,” which is the Anglophone West African term for a thick stew, into which wads of mashed starch can be dipped. (Ask for a big spoon to eat the rest after you’ve finished the fufu—the fork and knife are useless.) The bill of fare makes mash-soup suggestions, which you’re free to ignore. So what should you pick if you’ve never eaten Ghanaian before? I’d go for pounded yam with peanut soup ($12), especially if you loved peanut butter as a kid. Tinged bright red with droplets of palm oil, the potage is earthy and slightly spicy and bobs with hunks of bone-in beef and the occasional wad of gristle. But other things may be dredged up as well, including fragments of various internal organs. The Africans were early advocates of nose-to-tail eating.
Another good combo is plantain fufu with spinach-egusi soup ($12). The spinach is cooked to creaminess, while egusi, a coarse purée of pumpkin seeds, floats on top and looks like scrambled eggs. Far from being vegetarian, this soup is designated “mixed meat,” which means anything might be discovered within, including goat, smoked turkey wing, chicken, beef, and even fish. Other soups celebrate unusual textures and flavors, including one featuring okra—which generates an engaging slipperiness—and “potato leaves” (really sweet potato foliage), which smells like newly mown hay.
Suppose you want an actual soup instead of a sauce? You options include “light soup,” a chile-laced broth in which caprine nuggets leap around like baby goats on a rocky incline, and pepper soup, probably the hottest thing you’ve encountered in the past decade. The spiciness is due to grains of paradise (a/k/a malagueta peppers), which come from a bush indigenous to West Africa and produce a delayed burn more like Sichuan peppercorns than black pepper.
There are rice-based dishes, too, including the West African standard Jollof rice, the white grain cooked with palm oil and tomato paste for a dark color and concentrated flavor. It arrives topped with fried bluefish. Waachey ($11) is another coastal West African commonplace, a rich toss of black-eyed peas and rice, here dotted with sweet plantains and dressed with a mustard vinaigrette that shows the French contribution to the subcontinent’s cooking. The same recipe was brought to these shores by slaves and dubbed Hopping John, becoming a staple of Southern cuisine.
Unusual for an African restaurant, Mataheko serves beer along with a selection of small bar snacks to go with it. Suya ($5) is a goat kebab dusted with spicy peanut powder, demonstrating the Middle Eastern side to sub-Saharan cooking. And Friday’s snack special is chofie. A mere $6 gets you a giant plate of well-roasted meat on toothpicks.
But what is this cheap and incredibly delicious meat? Ask the waitress, and she’ll reply with a laugh: turkey butts.