Gastronomic adventurers can explore the flavors of a continent at three new African restaurants.
Palm-butter stew with steamed plantains. Pepper soup with goat and fufu (pounded yam). Beef with ground melon seed and mustard-green soup. Gastronomically, Africa is the undiscovered continent for most local diners, but a trio of new restaurants offering dishes from Uganda, Ghana and Nigeria has the potential to fill a major void on our dining scene.
At Tam-Tam's African Restaurant in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, chef-owner Stephen Kaggwa serves dishes from his native Uganda, as well as dishes from West Africa and Ethiopia. At Three Crowns Restaurant & Catering in Minneapolis' Lyn-Lake neighborhood, Adijat Lawal offers an extensive Nigerian menu. And at Kenkayba's Place, which opened late last fall on University Avenue in St. Paul, chef-owner Cecilia Woode prepares dishes from her native Ghana, and recently added American soul food to her menu.
I don't know how many non-African customers frequent these restaurants, but in all three, I have been made to feel very welcome. Owners and staff have happily answered my questions about their food, language and culture. All offer at least a few dishes that even unadventurous diners can enjoy, but for more intrepid eaters they offer a chance to savor dishes seldom seen in the Midwest.
Tam-Tam's probably has the broadest appeal. The Cedar Avenue storefront has been handsomely decorated with African art and crafts. Starters include lightly battered ground beef kebabs, little chicken pies that resemble Finnish pasties, and sambosas, triangular pastries filled with your choice of mildly seasoned spiced ground beef or seasoned lentils. All are recommended, but you may want to save your appetite for the generously portioned main courses.
My favorite was the West African savory palm-butter stew, prepared with your choice of beef, goat or chicken. (I tried it with chicken and found it delicious.) The same choice of meats accompanies Tam-Tam's stew, a Central African dish served with a savory meat gravy with chapati (flat bread), rice, starchy steamed plantains or ugali, a steamed ball of smooth white corn meal. The other Central African specialty, a whole fried tilapia served with a savory gravy, is also recommended.
Big meat eaters will enjoy the nyama kyoma, Hunter's Ribs, a huge chunk of broiled beef served on the bone, with a spicy kachumbari relish of tomatoes, onions and cucumbers on the side. I was less excited by the matooke, a Ugandan specialty available on weekends only. It's basically a huge mound of steamed mashed plantains, served as the starch to accompany your choice of beef, goat or chicken. I am sure this dish brings happy memories to homesick Ugandans, but I found it very bland.
Tam-Tam's will start serving wine and beer this week.
Three Crowns opened this summer in the tidy storefront formerly occupied by Wazobia Nigerian restaurant at 2817 Lyndale Av. S. Ordering main dishes at Three Crowns is a mix-and-match process: You pick any three meats from a list that includes beef, beef tripe, chicken, turkey or cow feet and combine with your choice of starch. The semolina, white rice, fried rice, and tomato-flavored jollof rice are all pretty familiar, but other starches are exclusively West African: iyan (pounded yam), amala (ground cooked yam), and eba (cooked dried cassava). These West African starches are served in baseball-sized portions, and come with your choice of soup. I haven't tried the jute-leaf soup, but I enjoyed the mustard-greens soup and the slightly slimy, but delicious, okra soup. There's lots more on the Three Crowns menu that I would like to try, ranging from the goat meat pepper soup and boiled yam with fried eggs, tomato and onion to the gbegiri, a bean soup cooked with palm oil and spices. If you aren't that adventuresome, try the beef kebabs or the chicken with jollof rice.
You'll find some similar dishes on the menu at Kenkayba's Place, which is no surprise, since Ghana and Nigeria are almost neighbors. On a previous visit, I enjoyed the peanut butter soup, served with a choice of beef, chicken, goat or fish (kingfish or croaker) and rice, fufu (pounded yam) or another West African starch. There's not much in the way of ambience; much of the business seems to be carry-out.
My greatest find on a recent return visit was the waakye, very accurately billed as the Whole Nine Yards. It's a platter piled high with black-eyed peas and rice cooked together, topped with spaghetti, choice of beef or goat, a fried tilapia fillet, fried plantains and gari (a couscous made from cassava). My friends and I loved it, and the larger portion ($15) is big enough for two or three.
The complex and savory eggplant stew, prepared with fried kingfish, tomatoes, onions and peppers, is also highly recommended. But I'd steer clear of the dish listed as dried okra stew (I later learned it's actually made from ogbono, wild mango kernels); I thought it tasted like soap. I haven't tried the new soul-food offerings, but they include fried chicken, ribs, fish and collard greens.
Jeremy Iggers 612-673-4524 firstname.lastname@example.org