Residents of Gambia, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria and Senegal may speak different languages, live within different political systems and celebrate different traditions, but the people of West Africa are bound by their cuisine. They all rely on plantains, tomatoes, goat meat, cassava and peanut butter, combined and prepared in countless ways to create the stew-based canon of cookery that spans the region.
I didn't know all this the first time I stopped in for dinner at African Grill and Bar, a hut-themed oasis with thatched straw walls decorated with dried flowers in the middle of an Aurora strip mall. Plopping down in a wicker chair, I tried to make sense of the foreign words shellacked to the table in front of me; the grainy images in the three-piece, plastic-coated pictorial menu I'd been handed did absolutely nothing to allay my confusion. And then, just as I was about to blindly point at something (promising myself I'd return after I'd done more research), owner Osei Ford-Wuo came over and parted the culinary fog.
"Don't worry if you can't understand the menu," he said. "I'm here to help you!"
African Grill and Bar
1010 South Peoria Street, Aurora
Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m.-12 a.m. Friday through Sunday
African Grill and Bar
Jollof and plantain $13
Fufu with goat $10
Red snapper $25
Peanut butter soup and rice ball $10
Visibly excited at the prospect of educating a group of willing learners, he proceeded to walk our table through dozens of dishes, adding personal anecdotes about Africa, advising us on what kind of meat to order (goat, mostly) and sharing his favorite dishes: jollof rice, his number one; jollof rice with plantain, his number-one number one; fufu, the only thing he needed to be happy. Completely smitten with Osei, we made our choices. And then our new friend celebrated our order by pouring us shots from a bottle of vodka filled with what looked like twigs and bark, hinting that his special concoction would rile us up sexually. Cheers!
Osei and his wife, Adwoa, moved to Denver from Ghana just over ten years ago. Osei had worked in a restaurant owned by Americans, and Adwoa had learned to cook while growing up in Nigeria and Ghana. When the couple first arrived here, they bought another eatery in Aurora — but that ill-fated venture was short-lived. The next time, they vowed, they'd open their restaurant without incurring any debt. So three years ago, they started selling food from a van they'd named African Grill, running deliveries and offering special orders. And by last summer, they'd saved up enough money to pick up their current address, debt-free.
The couple created a true family restaurant in the space, and their own family is often here: Their tiny, adorable child makes occasional guest appearances, serving up a grin as warm as Osei and Adwoa's ebullient greetings. And after doling out drinks and advice — the food at African Grill is not Ghanaian, Adwoa assured me, but West African; to assign a more specific label is to miss the point of the region's shared flavors — they retreat to the kitchen, where they can be heard, although not seen, preparing each dish. Because Osei and Adwoa do everything, your food can take a while, especially if there are a few parties in the restaurant. And by the time our first dish hit the table that first night, we were starving.
We'd asked for moimoi, a traditional Nigerian dish, because Osei had given it high praise. What came to the table looked like a log of polenta, and we eagerly dug in — only to find that moimoi tasted nothing like polenta. The dry, cakey mass of corn, black-eyed peas, onions and just a hint of tomato had been stuffed with chunks of mackerel, which Adwoa includes when she has the fish on hand. I ate bite after bite, trying to decide whether I liked that addition, which was simultaneously compellingly strange and repulsively reminiscent of day-old fish. Sometimes Adwoa stuffs the moimoi with corned beef; that sounds more appealing.
After that precarious start, our meal took a decided turn for the better. The jollof rice with plantains (Osei's number-one number one) came next, and I could see why he loved it. The sticky, caramelized fruit contrasted nicely with the rice — which had been cooked in a rustic, zesty tomato sauce, punched up with onion and salt and made earthy by red pepper — and came with perhaps the best fried chicken I've had in town, legs coated in an ethereally light batter and pan-fried until golden, daubed lightly with grease on the outside and incredibly juicy inside. The platter included a couple of dipping sauces: One, made with habanero peppers, was the color of watermelon and packed enough blazing heat in a couple of drops to practically asphyxiate me; the other was a dark, less spicy paste made slightly sweet by the inclusion of dried shrimp, dried herring and ginger (I had to ask).
After we'd devoured that plate, we made quick work of the kelewele, a dish we'd ordered because it was fun to say. It was fun to eat, too: More plantains, chopped into rough bits, had been deep-fried until dark; a mountain of those nibs, crackly on the teeth and reminiscent of cocoa in flavor, had been topped with a handful of salted, roasted peanuts. The combination had the same deeply satisfying effect as dumping M&Ms into a bag of popcorn at the movies.
We slowed down when the fufu came, though, partly because we'd already eaten so much and partly because we weren't quite sure what to make of it. The fufu, a mass of putty-like dough made from plantain, sat in the middle of a thin peanut butter stew, with chunks of dark goat — complete with visible shards of bone — bobbing around the perimeter. We'd been instructed to eat with our hands, so we pulled off bits of the stretchy glob, which tasted like instant mashed potatoes, and sucked the soup off our fingers. The combination of peanut butter and bone-in, skin-on goat created an essence so gamey, I could practically taste the whole herd of animals. Which I'm pretty sure had been frolicking in a swamp.
But surrendering wasn't an option, because Osei wanted us to finish every bite. "Our trash can is full," he joked. "You have to eat everything."
We placated him with a promise to return soon, and I made good on that a few days later when I came in with some friends. This time Osei was nowhere to be found, but Adwoa remembered me. "She's already part of the family," she told my companions. "She won't lead you astray."
I decided to forgo the tree-branch vodka this time, and instead tried a Vita Malt, a non-alcoholic, lightly carbonated beverage that tasted suspiciously like liquefied brown sugar. Turns out it was really just malt — the stuff you use to make beer, among other things. The home brewer in our group loved it, but I found myself staring longingly at his Coors Light.
We also skipped any mackerel-bearing appetizers in favor of the vegetable-stuffed samosas: triangular pockets of dough filled with a blend of sautéed onions, peas, green beans, carrots and corn, deftly fried until the pastry was golden, light and flakey. Then there was more jollof rice and more divine fried chicken; this time, I unashamedly licked the bone clean. The peanut butter soup, studded with smaller bits of goat meat, was milder without the fufu, and much better when sopped up with sticky rice rather than plantain goo.
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For the finale, we'd ordered red snapper, one of the many whole fish listed on the African Grill menu. It came grilled, topped with raw green peppers and onions, and served with a side. (We'd gone for more jollof.) The thin, brittle skin encased white flesh that crumbled decadently away from the bone; we bundled the veggies and fish into bites with our fingers, cleaning off one side of the skeleton and then wrenching the tail free to get at the rest. By the end of this meal, there were just a few scraps left on our table.
"Good thing," joked Adwoa. "We don't throw anything away."
And then she dropped off doughnuts: dense, cakey balls with a thick golden crust that left a graham-y taste on the tongue. "From African Grill to you," she said. "Thanks for bringing your friends to be part of our family."
I may still be slightly out of my element in a West African restaurant, but that's all it took to make me feel right at home.