Outside a big pink restaurant next to Bowlero in Lakewood, cooking smells waft across the parking lot. The stucco finish and tile rooftop of the building might make you think it's a Mexican eatery (it once was), but these aromas are different. Layers of spice (Indian? Middle Eastern?) intermingle with hints of slow-cooked meat, beckoning you to the front door.
The place is still too new to have a permanent sign, but the words on a banner above the entrance give a clue to the mystery of what's simmering inside: African Grill & Bar.
If you've hunted down African cuisine in Denver over the past decade or so (not an easy task, given how few places represent the continent's cooking beyond more prevalent Ethiopian and Moroccan specialists), you'll recognize the name of Sylvester and Theodora Osei-Fordwuo's restaurant, if not the location. The couple launched their eatery serving the food of Ghana, Nigeria and other African countries in 2010 in Aurora, then moved to a bigger location in Green Valley Ranch in 2013. And in February, they added a second location at 955 South Kipling Parkway, previously home to Hilario's.
While wood carvings on the lobby walls and a few animal figurines in the maze of connected dining rooms reveal the restaurant's orientation, a kiva-style fireplace, left over from the previous occupant, adds a touch of Southwestern charm. The menu, though, is 100 percent African, with a huge roster of dishes that are hard to find elsewhere in metro Denver.
African Grill & Bar is definitely a family place. One of the three Osei-Fordwuo children is likely to hand you menus and escort you to a table; another will bring water and take your order.
The menu is long but broken down into familiar categories: appetizers and soups, steaks, stews, rice and seafood, plus something a little more unusual — fufu dishes. Fufu is a starchy staple throughout West Africa; it goes by different names, and different starches are used depending on the country and culture. African Grill serves many kinds, some made with pounded plantain, others with sticky rice, still more with yam, cornmeal or cassava. Some versions, like kenkey and banku, are fermented, adding a slightly sour note, while others, like Zimbabwean sadza (which goes by the names pap, ugali and nsima in other countries), are simply boiled and formed into a soft ball, perfect for mopping up sauce. Here sadza is served with a traditional side of stewed greens in tomato gravy; as with most of the other fufu options, you can add beef, lamb, chicken, goat or oxtail.
If you're looking for a recognizable starter, choose the samosas with aromatic meat or veggie fillings; the chicken wings, which come with pepper sauce or tomato sauce (duck and turkey wings are also available); or the meat pie, with its flaky pastry crust baked into a half-moon shape. But the akara (bean fritters), kelewele (plantain fritters) and fried yam (the large African root vegetable, not the familiar American sweet potato) are fun bites to share with a group, too, even if the names aren't exactly bar-food standards. Be warned that the ramekin of plain-looking tomato sauce served with many of the appetizers packs a formidable burn from hidden chiles, so ask for the mild version if you can't take the heat.
More adventurous eaters will be drawn to skewered turkey gizzards dusted in a seasoning blend that includes toasted peanut powder. A side of moi moi, a steamed bean cake loaded with herbs, goes well with stews, especially the red red, a dish of plantains with black-eyed peas in sauce.
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African Grill is not an inexpensive restaurant; most entrees are priced in the mid-$20 range, especially if you're adding meat. But ingredients rare in Denver, labor-intensive preparations and long cooking times — the oxtail, for example, pulls easily from the bone — don't come cheap. If this is your first time trying African food, you can opt for the "Table for One," a chicken drumstick, spinach stew, jollof rice (one of Africa's most famous and widespread dishes), fried plantains and a samosa, for just $20; the "Table for Two" offers more choices (so you can sample fufu without going all in on an entree) for $35.
A bar will soon be added near the entrance, Theodora says, but in the meantime, South African wines and African beers are available (you'll have to ask to find out which selections are in stock). African Grill is set up so that you pay at the counter at the end of your meal; the owner's tween-age son might be the one ringing up your ticket (don't worry — his math skills are excellent). And as you leave, Theodora just might take a picture with you that will end up on the restaurant's Facebook page.
You're sure to be smiling.
The Lakewood outpost of African Bar & Grill is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, while the original, at 18601 Green Valley Ranch Boulevard, is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Call 303-985-4497 (Lakewood) or 303-375-7836 (Green Valley Ranch) for more details, or visit the restaurants' website.