Washington’s African restaurant scene has long been dominated by platters of spongy injera bread, sauteed beef tibs and stewed greens — Ethiopian and Eritrean dishes that have become almost as much of a regional staple as the chili-soaked half-smoke.
But on the other side of the continent, in Senegal, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria, is a wholly different style of cooking. In place of injera is doughy fufu, torn and dipped in bowls of okra or cassava-leaf stew. Stewed goat or whole fish is served atop beds of rice cooked with onion and tomato. The soup of the day is hot pepper, and the pepper, always, is Scotch bonnet.
The Washington area is home to several West African gems, mostly hidden — in some cases across the street from Ethiopian competitors. Unlike many of those East African restaurants, though, these no-frills diners and takeout joints have no lines or wait times — at least, not yet. So sit down for a rich, hearty meal, often served by the owners themselves, who are ready to share suggestions for dishes you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.
Named for a bustling square in Accra, the capital of Ghana, this restaurant and live-music hot spot is a throwback to an earlier era of Adams Morgan, when 18th Street was known more for its African nightlife than its frat-bro party scene. Reggae groups perform at 9 and 10 on weekends, but if you arrive at dinnertime, you’ll have the place largely to yourself. The drink menu includes strong cocktails such as the aptly named Bukom Bomb (vodka, tequila, triple sec and cranberry juice) and bottles of Tusker, a Kenyan beer — well suited for pairing with spicy beef kebabs called beer meat and tender chicken stewed in a peanut butter sauce (kumasi nkatikwan). Fried plantains, a linchpin of Ghanaian cuisine, are served with most dishes. Try them with whole deep-fried red snapper, or fufu and goat egusi cooked with palm oil.
Appioo African Bar & Grill
Chef Prince Matey, whose brother Justice runs Bukom, serves up carefully plated Ghanaian classics at this basement bar and restaurant. The peanut butter soup is stellar, spiced with Scotch bonnet pepper, and the savory jollof rice is served with beef, chicken, croaker (a fish), oxtail or boneless goat — steamed, fried and then stewed in a tomato sauce with ginger and garlic. Fried dumplings are a specialty: Akrakro, paired with spicy black-eyed peas, are a kind of plantain falafel; kenkey, made of fermented corn and cassava dough, are West Africa’s answer to tamales. The restaurant has a small wine list and $8-$10 cocktails, best sipped while sitting on one of Appioo’s backless seats and listening to the reggae and go-go acts that perform on weekends.
French is the language of choice at this Senegalese diner, where co-owner Mamadou Fall greets you with “bonjour” then happily guides you through the menu of sweet, sour and smoky dishes whose roots stretch all the way to Vietnam, also a former French colony. Nems, Senegal’s version of a crispy spring roll, rival the best fried rolls in Washington and are stuffed with chicken, ground beef, rice vermicelli and mushrooms. Don’t leave without ordering the yassa chicken, which comes with a powerful, spicy red sauce and a side of lemony caramelized onions that single-handedly make Chez Dior worth visiting. Also try the thieboudienne, a traditional Senegalese dish of white fish, carrot and tomato stew, and a glass of sweet pain de singe juice made from the fruit of the baobab tree.
West African food is nearly synonymous with comfort food, says Patrick Agbenfa, who was born in Togo and has owned Roger Miller since 2010. For a bit of old-fashioned healing, have the okra soup — “good for the body, good for the brain,” he says — or the spicy pepper soup, with or without goat. The sowyer, a flame-grilled beef kebab appetizer, comes with a sauce that has even more of a kick, but the most popular dish at this nine-table takeout spot is the tilapia: steamed, fried or roasted whole (head and all) and served with attieke or jollof rice and greens. Watch out for bones.
Husband-and-wife team Amara and Isata Sumah run one of the friendliest eateries in Washington, an unassuming seven-table takeout joint with bare green walls and a television tuned invariably to the evening news. Tell them it’s your first time, and you’ll be offered a free sampler plate of jollof rice and the restaurant’s traditional West African sauces and stews: okra, egusi, peanut butter and a slew of stewed leafy greens. The potato-leaf and krain krain (jute leaf) sauces are mind-expanding, especially compared with such greens as kale or spinach. Sauces start at $15 and come with your choice of meat (go for the tender beef or bone-in goat) and jollof rice or fufu, served on foam plates and in plastic to-go bowls. Have a cup of hot-pepper soup if you’re feeling peckish, and prepare to go home with leftovers.
Attieke (ATCH-ay-kay): A nutty side dish similar to couscous, made from grated, fermented cassava root and often served with fish or chicken.
Cassava: Also known as yuca, this South American plant is now a staple of African cuisine. Its leaves are steamed and used in sauces, and its potato-like tubers are used for flour and in such dishes as attieke.
Egusi: A thick soup or sauce made from melon seeds and spinach, usually served with goat or another meat.
Fufu (FOO-FOO): A fluffy, ball-shaped food usually made from cassava or plantain flour that has been boiled and pounded, often with a mortar and pestle. Served in or alongside soup and usually eaten by hand.
Groundnut: Another name for peanut, which is ground and cooked into a thick stew.
Jollof rice: Rice cooked with tomatoes, onions, peppers and other vegetables. Similar to the rice used in Louisiana jambalaya.
Jute leaf: Served as a sauce or stew and taken from the same plant that is used for a hairy, fibrous rope.
Credit: Washington Post