Goree Cuisine, Senegal in Kenwood

Goree Cuisine

During my university days, my circle of friends became very specific to West Indians and West Africans — Jamaicans, Haitians, Crucians, Ghanaians, Nigerians, Ivorians, and Senagalese. For us, it was customary to have some cultural representation in food available during study sessions that were not conducted in the library or in the labs. We built our networks so solid that whenever we travel the world, we assured each other that we or our families would look out for any in our network when we pass through their countries. When I started traveling between Chicago and Cape Town for personal holiday, I would stop in Dakar for an extended layover and, of course, partake of Senegalese food before my continuation flight.

Nem

Nem

Goree Cuisine at 1126 E. 47th Street takes me back to Dakar where everything is proper Senegalese instead of essence of Senegal. Spacious on the inside and full of light, Goree Cuisine brings authenticity to Chicago’s Kenwood neighbourhood that many mostly experience on Chicago’s North Side. Having been to two other Senegalese restaurants in Chicago, one having lost a bit of its edge and the other one very much Dakar-in-Chicago, Goree Cuisine is an addition to the Chicago landscape that had won me over during my first visit and had me completely addicted on my second visit.

Fataya

Fataya

The intent for my first visit was for a sampler, so I started with nem and fataya. Already aware of the history of how nem, the French word for spring roll, got its introduction into Senegalese cuisine via a Senegalese soldier’s marriage to a Vietnamese woman, I had an order mostly for comparison and contrast to others that I’ve had before. Stuffed with ground beef, shrimp, chicken, and glass noodles, I found these spring rolls to be considerably more appetizing than any of the proper Vietnamese variety and the best that I’ve had in America. The second street food appetizer I ordered was a plate of fataya. These flaky pastries with fish paste came with a side of kaani, a peppery tomato sauce, for dipping. Not stuffed to the point of the pastries looking puffed up, there was something almost cotton candy like with how they melted on the tongue. And considering they weren’t overly filled, there was still a lot of flavour in each bite.

Yassa Shrimp

Yassa Shrimp

For the main dish, I had yassa shrimp at the chef’s recommendation. This was pure heaven and brought about all the wonderful memories of my university days and layovers in Dakar. The shrimp were plump and fresh, complete with a hint of grilling in the taste. Served with grilled onions in mustard sauce, this was the first time on this side of the Atlantic Ocean I had a yassa dish without a visible squirt of Heinz mustard on top of the dish. The chef worked the mustard into the recipe and that made for the best yassa dish I’ve had since my last trip to Senegal.

Aloco

Aloco

On the second visit, I had my restaurant advisor join me. I knew she would indulge whatever came from the kitchen without complaint and without nose turned up. We had nem again, of which she repeatedly said, “Wow!” We then had maffe and an accompanying bowl of aloco. The maffee came in a bowl of peanut and tomato sauce with carrots, potatoes, and yams, along with rice. Reminiscent of peanut soup we’ve had at Ghanaian and Nigerian restaurants, albeit thicker and heartier, we resorted to silence while finishing this dish. And the aloco were the best prepared plantains we’ve had in months. They must let the plantains get almost overripe before frying them just to the point of caramelizing them: the best.

Maffe

Maffe

When my food advisor starts declaring, “It won’t stay on the fork,” I accept that fact that a dish is well past outstanding. This was the case with the yassa lamb. The yassa lamb came with grilled onions in a mustard sauce like with the yassa shrimp during my first visit and with yellow vegetable rice. The leg of lamb was a winner. Tender to the point where managing it was a bit trying because the meat kept falling off the bone without effort and not staying on the fork, the lamb also had no gamey aftertaste. The chef hit the mark on sending a plate to the table with tender, juicy, succulent meat that left a great lasting impression.

Yassa Lamb

Yassa Lamb

No food at Goree Cuisine goes into a microwave for a few seconds and then delivered to the table immediately thereafter. It is evident in the way the meat pulls apart from bones and how it falls from the fork. It is recognizable in how there are certain spices that you can taste “in” the dishes, as opposed to them tasting like the addition of condiments after the cooking. There is also no rush — no hurry up, be done with that plate, pay, and now leave. It is impossible to enjoy the cultural experience by rushing through it, so Goree Cuisine makes sure that not only will you fall in love with their loving from the kitchen, but that you will make plans to return repeatedly. I may not get back to Senegal often, but I will go to Goree Cuisine regularly.

Gorée Cuisines Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Ras Dashen, Ethiopian Flavour

Ras Dashen

For weeks I had been mentioning Ethiopian food to a colleague who wanted to sample some. Having been to a few Ethiopian restaurants in the city that I have reviewed and one that I hadn’t reviewed, I wanted to return to the latter. With my restaurant advisor joining us, Ras Dashen at 5846 N Broadway Street was the destination for some cultural dining after coming down from a Thanksgiving high.

Qezqaza Chai

Qezqaza Chai

Nice and spacious on the inside with seating that accommodates those who like traditional Ethiopian seating or those who prefer tables, Ras Dashen has a comfy feeling. The atmosphere is relaxing such that you can enjoy the complete dining experience while also engaging others in your party without competition from too much acoustics.

We started with qezqaza chai, which is cold red tea accented with spices commonly found in Indian tea, like cinnamon, cloves, and black peppercorns. Along with the tea we indulged cups of mereq, this version cooked with creamed lentils, boasting a flavour akin to puréed mild, sweet potato soup.

Mereq

Mereq

For the main platter, we spared no expense. In keeping with opting for variety, we ordered one chicken, one lamb, one seafood, and a round of vegetarian menu items. The chicken was doro wat, which was dark meat chicken and boiled egg in a spicy berbere sauce. The lamb dish was yebeg de berbere, succulent lamb stew bursting with bold spices. The seafood dish was asa wat, fillet tilapia in a dark berbere sauce that had been prepared from roasted, ground flaxseed. As to the vegetarian offerings, we had telba shimbera misser wat — puréed chickpeas, split peas, and flaxseed in a dark berbere sauce. There was kik alicha, which were puréed yellow split peas cooked with onions, garlic, ginger, and green peppers. We even had tikil gomen alicha — spiced cabbage, potato, and carrot stew. And a final vegetarian item we ordered was ethio salata, which came as romaine lettuce, green onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, and jalapeños. There wasn’t one item that we did not enjoy thoroughly, evident from the empty platter when we were done.

Communal Platter

Communal Platter

The finale was a plate of Ethiopian bread pudding topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. In the same vein of employing cinnamon and cloves in recipes, the bread pudding had both and a nice share of raisins, dates, and nuts. Served warm, it was a fantastic ending to a hearty and delectable cultural meal.

Ethiopian Bread Pudding

Ethiopian Bread Pudding

No Ethiopian meal is complete without tea or Ethiopian coffee. Although there was no Ethiopian coffee service, complete with toasting the beans and going through a ritual, a pot of Ethiopian coffee simply can’t be beaten. Those who have taken Ethiopian coffee will attest that it bests any franchise, chain, or independent coffeehouse trying to play like a franchise or chain. The same is applicable to the coffee at Ras Dashen.

Cup of Ethiopian Coffee

Ethiopian Coffee

When it comes to Ethiopian food, individuals either love it or hate it. It is best enjoyed in a communal setting with a group of friends or family. The injera bread may be a different flavouring on the palate for many because of the slight tangy taste, bordering on what a few may deem as sour. However, mixed with hearty sauces in the vegetables and meats, the whole dining experience is a winner. Chicago’s Edgewater community houses several Ethiopian restaurants, so you can get a good selection of Ethiopian fare from each. I highly recommend Ras Dashen for not only good food, but also for outstanding service and quality all around.

Ras Dashen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Yassa — New Location

Yassa

In 2007 when my first adventurous restaurant friend and I were going through the alphabets, we skipped ahead to S for Senegalese at the recommendation of a mutual friend. The restaurant, Yassa, had been featured on a show called Check, Please! There was a lot of buzz about it then and when we went, we found out why. The were simply outstanding!

Fataya

Fataya

Fast forward to 2016 and Yassa has since moved from its location in the Grand Crossing neighbourhood to Bronzeville at 3511 S. King Drive. There is still the homey interior decor. The service doesn’t have the same welcoming feel as it did years ago, although the servers are accommodating after you’ve been seated and you’ve placed your order.

Nem

Nem

During this recent visit, I went with my sister, who is an addict for any West African cuisine. We started with fataya and nem, The fataya were meat pies stuffed with a tomato-based fish paste. For years ago, the stuffing made the pies hearty. There is still the mouth-watering taste, but the filling is less. The nem, which were smaller when I went in the past, were now larger and more filling. Having its base in Vietnam, many Vietnamese refugees had come to francophone West Africa during the Vietnam War and brought the egg roll recipe with them. Since then, it has been adopted in the West African diets, Senegal being one of the countries to add it to menus. Yassa brings them to America.

Cabbage with Carrots

Cabbage with Carrots

We ordered a dish of curry chicken with yams and djollof rice. The curry gravy was absolutely divine. The lack of meat on the chicken bones did take away from the dish. Being extremely comfortable using our fingers, my sister and I picked up the bones and sucked whatever meat there was off. With the sauce, we scooped it over the djollof rice and devoured that, after which we washed it down with a hibiscus favourite of bissap.

Bissap

Bissap

Curry Chicken with Yams

Curry Chicken, Djollof Rice

The final dish we wanted to try was the red snapper. This came as a whole snapper with bone in. Again, we used our fingers to pick up the fish and devoured it along with a side of more djollof rice, cabbage with carrots, and plantains. The skin on the fish was crispier than its preparation in 2007. Good thing the inside was meaty. The plantains were good, but a few more days would have made them perfect.

Plantains

Plantains

Those who like to go to restaurants that give large portions for menu items will love Yassa. The restaurant was quite lively and filled when we arrived. They were also preparing for a live band that was setting up for an evening set, so that may explain a bit of the scrambling with the table service as well as some “rushed feel” with the output from the kitchen. My sister and I admitted that we would probably have to return to try some other dishes that were familiar to us during our individual trips to Dakar.

Red Snapper with Jollof Rice

Whole Red Snapper with Djollof  Rice

Once again, Chicago has two options for Senegalese restaurants. There is Badou Senegalese in Rogers Park, covering the North Side. And there is Yassa in Bronzeville for those venturing through the South Side.

Yassa African Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Badou Senegalese Cuisine

Several years ago when a friend and I had gone through the alphabets down to S, another friend had told us about a Senegalese restaurant on Chicago’s South Side named Yassa. That restaurant was getting a lot of positive press then and after going, we understood why. The service was fantastic and the food was incredible. There were no other Senegalese restaurants that I knew of in the metropolitan Chicago area and I was glad that Yassa was a location I could frequent.

Bissap

Bissap

Fast forward to 2015 and only a few weeks ago, while riding through Chicago’s Rogers Park on the way from the suburb of Skokie, I saw Badou Senegalese Cuisine at 2055 W. Howard Street. Imagine how happy I was to spot the restaurant. To see if I would experience culinary bliss, I made an appointment to return and followed through. And from the initial entry into the restaurant, with the owner thinking I was Senegalese, I knew that it was going to be a winner.

Curry Soup

Curry Soup

I was in the mood for something with a kick to it. Curry vegetable soup jumped off the menu. This was not just a bowl of broth with a few vegetables swimming around in it, but it was chocked full of potatoes, green beans, carrots, celery, and lentils. When I say that it was spicy, I don’t mean in a mild sense. I was in love and having a glassful of bissap made it that more satisfying. This hibiscus drink is a must.

Fataya

Fataya

Having brought a hearty appetite with me, I ordered an appetizer of fataya. These delectable pastries came stuffed with ground beef in a tomato based sauce. These, too, were spicy and served with the tomato and onion sauce of kaani, I remembered how much I enjoyed these from street vendors when I went to Dakar with a friend during undergraduate school for a brief visit. I must admit that the fataya were addictive, enough that I ordered extra for takeaway.

Cebu Djen

Cebu Djen

After letting some time pass, I then ordered a main dish of cebu djen. This entree set my addiction to full bloom. Red snapper, fileted and seasoned very spicy, the meat was plump. The texture was silky like that of skate and Atlantic char. It was the succulent pop in each bite that I appreciated. The djolof rice, reminiscent of couscous, came with a whole carrot, cabbage, and eggplant. The portions were large so, I was completed sated.

Badou Senegalese Cuisine

The food is authentically Senegalese. One thing to note is there will be a wait before your dishes come from the kitchen to the table. And I am beginning to see that this seems to be customary at the cultural restaurants I have been going to as of late. Everything is prepared after you order it, not warmed up and definitely not microwaved. I highly recommend that when you go, take your time ordering various dishes and enjoy them slowly. Good food is meant to be savoured and Badou Senegalese Cuisine wins with putting something in front of you that you can take your time devouring.

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Back to Africa Through Bolat

Bolat African Cuisine

The beautiful thing about Skype is that you can talk to friends and family, near and very far, free. Take for instance, I was having a video chat with an old graduate school friend. And what should he be doing while we were in conversation? He was eating. If you have only looked at some authentic Nigerian dishes, you may wince a little. Nothing is actually cute on the plate. But if you have had some Nigerian cuisine dancing around on your tongue, your mouth waters at the mention of it. Well, as much as I wanted to lick the monitor, I settled on going to Bolat African Cuisine at 3346 N. Clark Street later to sort out my craving.

Hibiscus Mojito

Hibiscus Mojito

Plantains and Peanut Sauce

Plantains and Peanut Sauce

During this visit, I was in my usual mood of not wanting to make any decisions about what to eat. I told the server, who I found out was also the owner, that I wanted two appetizers, two entrées, one dessert, and cocktails for pairing. See what my Skype experience had done to my appetite? For my first cocktail, I had a hibiscus mojito. I made a mental note to return in the future and request a flight of mojitos because the hibiscus mojito transported me mentally to a climate considerably warmer than the 40 degrees we had in Chicago. To add to the mojito, there were plantains with peanut sauce. What a combination. What a perfect start.

Meat Pie

Meat Pie

The next appetizer was a meat pie. This reminded me so much of Jamaican beef patties. The pastry casing was not as flaky, but it definitely was tempting enough that I ordered several for take-away. Served with a homemade hot sauce, I’m going to have to admit that I have a love affair with Nigerian meat patties. If you order ten to take home with you, there really is no other indication of an addiction that you need.

Peanut Soup with Fish

Peanut Soup with Fish

The first entrée was truly cultural on two fronts — Nigerian and Ghanaian. I had peanut soup and it was served with snapper. Because I wanted to enjoy the dish in a proper way, I had fufu with it. No fork. No spoon. There were fufu and my fingers. I have said on multiple occasions that I do not like peanuts, Sam I Am, but I can eat peanut soup until it hurts. My palate welcomes spicy food, so I had the peanut soup prepared mildly peppery. The fish was seasoned well with various herbs and prepared such that the outer texture was slightly crunchy while the meat was succulent. Truly my African half showed itself because I completed the dish with the fufu, not once using a utensil.

L'amuse

L’amuse

Queen Nefertiti

Queen Nefertiti

Surprisingly, I had room for another full entrée. In preparation for the next dish, I had a l’amuse of skirt steak, tomato, and grilled onion, served with peanuts crushed to a powder. Not dainty like the amuse-bouche that you may get a fancy restaurants, but definitely tastier, I could have had this as a full plate. And to make moving into the next entrée that more inviting, I had a cocktail of hibiscus, ginger liqueur, and champagne. I understand why the name of the drink is Queen Nefertiti.

Egusi with Fish

Egusi with Fish

The second main course was another authentic Nigerian dish called egusi. This was also served with snapper. My friend who I was on Skype with, who happens to be Yoruba, had prepared some egusi when he was visiting the latter part of 2014. The egusi at Bolat was reminiscent of the variety that my Igbo friends prepared during our “cultural” dinners. Not one to complain about too much seafood in my diet, the snapper was tender and light enough that the egusi was still the star. And rather than indulging myself with more fufu, I had a scoop of jollof rice that I needed the recipe for.

Salt and Pepper Highball

Salt and Pepper Highball

Ice Cream Covered in Coconut

Ice Cream Covered in Coconut

The final course was in keeping with not letting a customer leave without giving a rating of 15 out of 10 on the scale. I had a cocktail called the Salt and Pepper Highball. I initially thought the salt and pepper garnish around the rim of the glass was different, but the gin, grapefruit juice, fresh lemon juice, simply syrup in the glass made it worthwhile. Accompanying this dessert cocktail was a scoop of vanilla ice cream covered in coconut,, topped with an apricot slice, and drops of honey raspberry reduction. The marriage of the cocktail and the ice cream was a match made in heaven.

Bolat African Cuisine is more like a lounge. The atmosphere is so laid back that the dining experience is considerably more relaxed than what you would get at a regular restaurant. For those who have been to Iyanzé in Chicago’s Uptown, which I blogged in 2011, you will not be disappointed by the offerings from the kitchen. Part of this is because the owner of Bolat African Cuisine also owns Iyanzé. Good food should never be rushed, and nothing comes from the kitchen in a snap, as it is prepared to order. Go. Sit. Relax. Enjoy. As for me, I need to Skype with my friend again and not to have my food alarm go off but so I can get some ideas of what else I should try — perhaps something cultural that is not on the menu.

Bolat African Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Nigerian Pop-up Dinner, Tunde Wey Style

During this past summer, I got turned on to the concept of pop-up art galleries while at one of the many street festivals that Chicago hosts. Empty stores that had not been repurposed for the Logan Square revitalization effort had been used as temporary showcase areas for artists in the Chicago metropolitan area. It was a rather nice way for local artists to get some initial exposure without having to pay heavy costs to a gallery for display of their works. Shortly after the pop-up art galleries at the festival, I started seeing references to pop-up retail shops. And recently, I got an invitation to a pop-up Nigerian dinner. Not one to turn down Nigerian food, I accepted the invitation without pause.

Isi Ewu Pepper Soup with Goat
Egusi Frejon

Tunde Wey, a restaurateur from Detroit, MI, was in Chicago visiting with some friends who had graciously hosted the Chicago leg of a tour that he was doing across several cities. His tour route also consisted of New Orleans, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and New York City. Those who attended any of the dinner gatherings were in for some damn good Nigerian food that they would otherwise have to go to Nigerian to indulge or find some Nigerians in America who would be open to preparing some authentic dishes.

The motley crew in Chicago was treated to isi ewu, pepper soup with goat, egusi, and frejon with plantains. The isi ewu was spiced goat’s head. Those who love spicy food would enjoy this without a second thought. The pepper soup with goat in it was a grand hit. Eyes were watering. Beads of sweat were on foreheads. Everyone was going back to the pot for seconds and thirds. And had I not been so into my fourth bowl, I would have gotten back to the pot in time to get a proper photo. Another favourite was egusi, a dish prepared with ground melon seeds, spinach, and crawfish. A dish that I did not photograph because, again, I was caught up in the rapture of the whole dining scene, was jollof rice. This rice pilaf is common to the West African palate and unlike British chef Jamie Oliver — you must watch the embedded YouTube video to get the joke — this jollof rice would make any West African in the diaspora homesick. With a finale of frejon, this dish of mashed black beans and fried plantains would actually make anyone hanker for Africa.

The next day after the dinner, I looked up pop-up dinners and discovered that I am rather late finding out about them. The Moroccan dinner I had attended about a year ago felt more like a showcase of the chef’s cooking talents among friends he knew, so pop-up never crossed my mind. But this concept is more popular in Chicago than I thought. Honestly, I think that it is a fantastic way for the chef to get exposure to the diners. The experience engaging people while cooking removes the “oh, they’re strangers” atmosphere and creates friendships that otherwise would never come to fruition. Tunde Wey certainly made the dining aspect of the night one worth bottling. And his interpersonal touch also left us with our bellies hurting from so much laughter. For one night, a group of total strangers had humour, some Nigerian food from “home,” and some “real” jollof rice.

Jamie Oliver, what in Dante’s Inferno were you thinking?

Tomato, Tomahto, Ethiopian, Eritrean

Den Den Restaurant

When I moved to the Chicago metropolitan area in late 1995, my first stop was Northbook. I like to think that I fit into that area well, me being a high-end professional with an income that allowed me to live in a huge, empty apartment without the need of a flatmate. I was as cultured and snobbish then as the locals. I had given up my complete snooty New York City ways and become a laid back Midwest chap. A year into being a bit too relaxed, it was imperative that I moved closer to Chicago proper. The crickets during the summer were driving me cuckoo batty. So, my landing spot became Chicago’s North Side in the hip neighbourhood of Rogers Park. It felt a little like Berkeley, California, with a lot of Mexican influence. Bim, bom, bim.

The neighbourhood was chock full of taquerias and Mexican holes-in-the-wall. Trust me when I say that for the three years of me living in Rogers Park, I never tired of Mexican authenticity to my food. And after I had gotten accustomed to what turns of phrases could get me into trouble because Spanish spoken in the Caribbean has a lot more “colour” to phrases than what you get in Mexican Spanish, I was getting extra goodies in my take-out bags. Extras in the bags were always a good thing, unless you were a prude, a Dudley Do-Right, a total spazz. Well, fast forward to 2013 and I find that some other ethnic representation has dotted the Rogers Park landscape. They now have Iraqi, Iranian, and Eritrean restaurants a few blocks away from where I used to live.

You waited until I moved to do this, Rogers Park. How could you?

Spiced Tea

Spiced Tea

I met with a fellow colleague for dinner, after having been to Rogers Park to sample some Iranian food the previous week. We saw an Eritrean restaurant named Den Den Restaurant at 6635 N. Clark Street while on the way to the Iraqi restaurant and both yanked out our smartphones simultaneously to block a date for a visit. In the Edgewater neighbourhood, there are several Ethiopian restaurants, but Eritrean was new to me and definitely something I felt was worthy for Chicago Alphabet Soup. Friday came around. We both had left work at a reasonable time. And the plan for some love on a platter was on the agenda.

Because the weather was not all that good, with constant, sudden downpours, we chose not to imbibe any of the honey mead. Trying to drive in Chicago is already a frustrating task. Driving with slightly impaired reflexes from having drunk a graft of tej was not an option for us. Instead, we had traditional spiced tea — accented nicely with cinnamon and cloves. Mmmm. Not trying to see if we could fill our bellies endlessly, we went for entrée options rather than starting with appetizers and later regretting not having left enough room for finishing everything in front of us. Because I didn’t get a take-away menu or lift one of the menus we ordered from, I am relaying everything from memory.

The meal was primarily vegetarian. There were chopped greens that had a hint of garlic and ginger to them. Happiness. The cabbage with carrots and the melange of potatoes, string beans, and rutabaga didn’t last very long atop the ingera. Bliss. The creamed lentils and the flour chickpeas were so blooming delicious that they were so wrong at the same time. Rapture. And the chicken mixed with red peppers, onions, and jalapeño had us humming — when we weren’t silent. Petite mort. Being addicted to tomatoes, I won’t even get into how I attacked the complimentary salad. With fingers only and ingera, we reached, grabbed, and stuffed into our mouths so much flavour and bloom with assembly line precision. The fact that there were intermittent intervals of silence and humming was all the indication anyone needed to know that Den Den was several notches past outstanding.

Platter of Love

Platter of Love

Many people think of Ethiopian and Eritrean as the same. However, Eritrea is a country in Northeast Africa completely separate from Ethiopia. There are similarities in the people and in the cuisine. One may even find the beliefs and customs to be similar, considering they share a common border and there is a strong possibility for some cross-pollination to occur. What I had found certainly common among Den Den Restaurant and Ethiopian restaurants in Chicago like Addis Ababa, Ethiopian Diamond, Ras Dashen, and Demera is definitely authenticity, a huge presence of those from the country dining in the establishments, and a welcoming spirit that is standard throughout the whole of Africa.

The setting in Den Den Restaurant is very warm and ambient at night. For most who are not fans of ethnic dining, the service may seem a bit slow. That’s not the case. There is simply an acknowledgement that the enjoyment of flavours from the native land should never be rushed. For those who must have silverware, the traditional way of eating Eritrean food is with your fingers. The best experiences in Ethiopian and Eritrean dining are in a communal setting with friends. Talk about a great way for community gatherings. And when you receive the tab, be forewarned that your eyes will widen with disbelief as you note how reasonable the prices are. Some say tomato. Some say tomahto. Some think Ethiopian. Try Den Den Restaurant and let’s talk Eritrean a little more.

DenDen Restaurant and Bar on Urbanspoon

Iyanzé — Roots

Iyanzé

When I began my undergraduate studies at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi, in the mid 80’s, little did I know that the mathematics department and the computer science department were dominated by African and Caribbean students. Being one of the few students then who chose to play hard ball by pursuing a double major in both of those concentrations, I was immersed in the African and Caribbean cultures, being incredibly comfortable in both since I am a product of the two anyway. So, we all studied together. We encouraged each other in our educational track. We formed support groups. We challenged each other. We had fellowship. And oh did we eat together. After long hours of going over lessons, assignments, and preparing for tests, there were equal moments spent in kitchens and over grills having flavourful smoke dancing in the air, food swirling in our bellies, and happiness in surplus.

Today was one of those days that had my days of yore flicker through my mind. The visits to Africa in between summer intern assignments and returning to school. The cultural experience that I would not have had otherwise with other students if I had not bonded with my fellow brothers and sisters. With us all being scattered across the globe and seeing each other on occasional visits, I missed that. And I thought of the dinners that became regular for us. Recent conversation over Skype with one of my greatest college friends brought to mind that I should seek out a Nigerian restaurant in Chicago. Considering Chicago’s Uptown and Edgewater neighbourhoods are teeming with representation from Africa, I knew that there would be no problem finding at least one Nigerian eatery to my liking. True to the Uptown community, there are three all in walking distance of each other. I chose Iyanzé Restaurant at 4623 N. Broadway Street, just off the Wilson Street Red Line stop.

Jollof Rice and Plantains

Jollof Rice and Plantains

With a layout much like a cafeteria, Iyanzé is a laid back kind of restaurant. You order at the counter, selecting a variety of menu items that have been prepared fresh and authentically Nigerian. After looking at the menu, I remembered what my fellow classmates had cooked in their kitchens during our study sessions. I recalled a lot of what I ate to excess in Lagos in 1989. I can still taste remnants of the memories of dishes prepared by many of my Nigerian friends over the years. And I chose four dishes that called out to me and one very daring one that will probably be my only experimental dish for the year — a bit too early to say since it is still January.

Pepper Soup

Pepper Soup

For starting out, and I shall give the daring dish upfront, I had beef pepper soup. Tasty, so very tasty, with beef cubes cooked to the point where you could cut them with plastic forks. Spicy enough to clear my breathing that had been blocked with the cold weather outside. But there is a certain ingredient that I had forgotten until I put my spoon in for the first scoop: tripe. Normally, I would give an exaggerated Ugh! and act up. However, the tripe had been cooked so that it did not have the consistency of a rubber band and it had been seasoned such that it did not taste like a rubber band either. Not that I will have a want for beef pepper soup every time I go into a Nigerian restaurant, but I must say, honestly, that the soup at Iyanzé was a pleasant surprise. The jollof rice was not sticky, which is not a bad thing at all, and it was not overdone or undercooked. Add plantains to that and you have the combination of a winner. Where things really hit a happy tilt was with the tilapia in a red sauce. Granted the tilapia was not filleted. There are bones, bones, small bones, clear bones, fine bones, and more bones in the fish. But the meat, the freshness, the plumpness made the tilapia so much more appetizing. And I washed it all down with a ginger bear. Bliss.

Tilapia in Red Sauce

Tilapia in Red Sauce

After doing all but licking the plates and the soup bowl, I decided to see if I could get a dessert. Unfortunately, Iyanzé does not have dessert fare. That was fine because I saw that they had a certain item that would be fantastic for breakfast. I ordered a few meat pies — pastries filled with seasoned ground beef — for take-away. Before I walked back out into the frosty evening, I opted for another ginger beer. Once you have one good ginger beer, they tend to be rather addictive thereafter. And because it seemed to have been taking rather long for me to get the meat pies and the ginger beer, mostly because the woman behind the counter and I were laughing and joking with each other, the woman behind the kitchen window yelled out, “Hey, you Ghanaian boy, my daughter is not on the menu,” and then a host of individuals in the kitchen started laughing while the daughter was blushing. It was a good laugh for all of us, something very common that I find very inviting within African and Caribbean cultures.

Meat Pie

Meat Pie

Before I went to Iyanze, I had read some reviews on a few of the esoteric websites. It pays to put a lot of commentary into perspective because a good bit of the reviews seemed to have come from individuals who were of the suburban ilk who cringe at anything remotely different from chicken fried steak and potatoes. Iyanzé is not a fancy sit-down-and-you-will-be-served restaurant. The authenticity cannot be beaten and where Iyanzé stands out is in the food. Having had food prepared by great friends from Nigeria and having had my feet under numerous tables in Lagos, I can attest that Iyanzé is doing it right. Incredibly reasonable prices make the visit even more worthwhile. You can go anywhere and get mediocre. But you get the absolute best at Iyanzé. You get to experience a lot of what made my undergraduate days so enjoyable.

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