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Hessini Roots International combines Southern soul with West African and Mexican dishes

My meals at African Grill and Bar left me hungry to try more jollof rice and fufu, which led me to Hessini Roots International, just a few blocks past Stapleton in Aurora. The restaurant, tucked into a lonely row of shops on a nearly deserted residential street, was quiet when I stopped by on a rainy night last week. Behind the counter, a couple of women — owner Ifiok Etuk's aunties, I later learned — were leafing through magazines and making phone calls.

I took a seat at one of the tables in the spacious dining room, taking in the wood-carving of Africa on the wall, the smell of disinfectant, the sweet sounds of R&B on the stereo, the romance self-help book propped ceremoniously on the counter (written by Etuk, I was told) and, finally, the menu. Etuk moved to the United States from Nigeria in 1987 and, after a stint at Taco Bell, opened his own spot three years ago; the menu — a combination of Southern soul food, Mexican dishes and West African specialties — reflects that background. Right in the middle, amid the wings, catfish, burritos and macaroni and cheese, is a section of dishes made from the recipes of his family in Nigeria, including jollof rice, fufu and fried plantains. Goat, tripe and cow's feet are listed as meat options, right alongside the fried chicken.

I ordered a plate of the jollof and got a mountain of rice cooked in a tomato stew; the result was not unlike Spanish rice, except for the hint of heat that lingered on the back of my palate. The rice had been topped with fat cutlets of chicken breast, thickly breaded and deep-fried, smothered in more of the tangy tomato stew. The dish was so hearty, I craved the sweet supplement of fried plantains on the side — but, sadly, Hessini was out that day.

Compared to the African Grill's jollof, Etuk's rendition seemed more Americanized, a hybrid between a traditional African recipe and the soul food he's been eating since he came to this country. But on a cold, rainy night in Denver, it tasted just about perfect.

 
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