A few weeks ago during lunch, I was reminiscing with a good friend about my days when I lived in Rogers Park. The neighbourhood has since changed. Old businesses have closed. New businesses have opened. The changing demographics of the old neighbourhood are bringing a new vibe. And with all of these changes is a wave of restaurants with international flare. My friend had mentioned that a new Nigerian restaurant opened next to my favourite coffeehouse. So, this week I was off to Little Unicoco at 1631 W. Howard Street.
Arriving during the mid afternoon, I had a seat in what is called the market area of the restaurant. The larger lounge area was on the other side of the walled partition. After placing my order, I had fried, sweet plantain chips. Forget about potato chips and fancy chips touting less fat and healthy options. The all-natural sweetness and pop in the fried plantains were a winning combination. I was glad to find that the market portion of the restaurant has these lovelies bagged for take-away.
Much like the most recent Doctor Who, I’m not always a good man. Having inquired about whether there was ginger beer for imbibing, the server informed me that there was. She even poured the beverage with care, as if pouring beer. But this was the good kind of beer. Nothing like the fizzy pop that you buy off the shelves at your local grocer, this reminded me of homemade ginger beer, the variety that people take time to boil with real ginger that they leave in and you get to enjoy somewhat as candy when you’re done downing the ginger beer. Being bad, I sent a photo to my food advisor, knowing how much she loves “real” ginger beer. I imagined her shaking her fist at her cellphone before she sent a text back to me with three words: Don’t tease me!
One of my favourite Nigerian snack foods is a meat pie. Bread is a vice and the crust in Nigerian meat pies is well past addictive. Filled with a nice amount of minced, ground beef, this is a food addict’s dream along with a tomato based hot sauce. By the third bite, I had decided that I would order several for take-away so that I could have them for breakfast over the next few days. The caveat is I will devour them all in one day.
Next to the table was suya. This is another snack food that screams “have at it and know that I am the best barbecue ever.” Sliced beef with Yaji spices on onions and tomatoes, the ginger from the ginger beer combined with the spices on the suya transported me mentally back to Lagos with my university classmates who knew where to find all the good street food.
The final dish was one that I have loved with rice. But on this visit, I had to lose my Westernisms and devour this dish with pounded yam rather than with the assistance of table utensils. Egusi soup. This bowl of spicy, pounded egusi seeds filled with fish and beef is my favourite Nigerian dish, with non-vegetarian pepper soup and isi ewu coming in next. I have enjoyed the spicy kick of egusi soup with rice whenever I had a chance to have a bowl placed in front of me, however, there was something about eating it with the pounded yam that made it taste like I was eating something from home.
As a wrap-up, the server asked if I would like to sample a dessert. You have not had a tastier snack until you have had a fried pastry called chin chin. I sampled some that had been flavoured with nutmeg. I remembered being gifted some from a classmate’s mother who prepared some for a care pack when I was leaving Nigeria to return to New York for an intern when I was in university. It was as if I had gone back to Ibadan in 1989 to relive that flight again.
Little Unicoco packs a huge punch with authenticity. Granted I went earlier in the day well before the dinner crowd arrived, the service was still top. The atmosphere was welcoming and even the owner walked to every table and inquired as to whether this was everyone’s first time having Nigerian food and if there were any answers he could provide. Now I have another go-to Nigerian restaurant in Chicago. Big ups, Little Unicoco.