Question your motives before dining at Chez Amina (1460A Boston Road, The Bronx; 917-801-2222), the West African restaurant Nafissatou Diallo opened downstairs from a South Bronx mosque last May. If schadenfreude whets your appetite, there’s a Guy Fieri restaurant in Times Square you’ll love, but don’t make worse the life of a woman whose work as a housemaid at the midtown Sofitel hotel was upended in 2011, when she was allegedly assaulted by the former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Instead, ride the 5 train out to Freeman Street for the café’s house-made hot sauce, a slick pepper-flecked paste thick with ginger that pairs with a dozen daily specials native to Diallo’s Guinea homeland.
Nobody noticed when Diallo filed the paperwork for Chez Amina Inc. in the summer of 2013, months after celebrating an undisclosed settlement with her attorneys at Union Square Cafe; only family and friends heralded the grand opening when the restaurant’s Facebook page went live last May. But two weeks ago, after a reporter for Paris Match located Diallo in the course of Strauss-Kahn’s current court trial in France, Chez Amina has reluctantly welcomed a steady stream of local and international reporters who blend in to the local clientele as a Maggi bouillon cube into dry attieke, a traditional side dish of sharp, chalky cassava pulp.
Their coverage of this next phase of Diallo’s life often references the six-page menu stacked atop the counter and reiterated on a menu board hung behind foggy steamer trays. Both feature more than 100 items: diner fare like fried calamari, chicken quesadillas, and more than a dozen takes on the hamburger. Their coverage highlights these dishes because when reporters approach the counter, they’re asking all the wrong questions, forcing Diallo to wave them away or make for the door. But ask her gracious mum and loyal staff what’s recommended for lunch and they’ll fold the menu back, point down to a dozen dishes marked House Specials, and let you in on one secret: “This is all we have.”
The cab drivers who take advantage of Chez Amina’s 5 a.m.–to–3 a.m. hours already know this. So, too, does the rush of congregants from Masjid Sidiki upstairs, who flock to the restaurant after the noon call to prayer. That’s when Diallo shows herself, moments before prayers end, joining her staff in scooping poisson braise (baked tilapia) from the steamer trays into takeout tins, preparing to hand them off to a procession of regulars who don’t need to place an order. They pop the lids in red vinyl banquettes that line the walls under flatscreen televisions broadcasting Dawson’s Creek reruns.
On every table there are plastic forks and spoons, but in lieu of knives, a pile of napkins. The girl behind the counter gave us a nod of approval after lifting hulking crispy browned lamb shanks, boiled then fried until they’re soldered to the bones. Sinking your teeth in the unctuous flesh isn’t recommended; rather, we’d recommend sucking at the meat until it gives and savoring the marinade it shares with a grilled-then-fried guinea fowl. The bird’s delicate skin is soaked in parsley, bouillon, and black pepper. To offset the heat, there’s a side dish of chopped onion and peppers stewing in oil and vinegar that serves as salad and condiment to moisten the Maggi cube and thicken the attieke.
There’s rice too. Traditional and acidic jollof rice, as rib-sticking as the shanks, and, for dessert, rice pudding packed in the refrigerator case alongside Vimto, an effervescent English fruit soda on par with Red Bull. Go with the Vimto. The pudding’s gone unattended, watery with the funk of yogurt. That you can ask about.
Follow Adam Robb on Twitter, @lifevicarious.