Three new West African restaurants in Phoenix send our critic into an exploratory tizzy.
Thanks primarily to Cafe Lalibela in Tempe, Greater Phoenix food enthusiasts have enjoyed a decades-old kinship with the fiery wats and spongy injera of Ethiopian cuisine. However, food traditions from the other side of the African continent – represented by Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria and other West African nations – have remained a mystery to the general dining public. Until recently, that is.
Owing to shifts in migration and the rise of celebrity chefs who tout its history and charms, West African cuisine is trending mightily in the U.S., and the Valley is no exception, with a slew of restaurants from Africa’s Atlantic coast having sprung up over the last two years. I visited three of them and, naturally, was thrilled to do so. There are vanishingly few culinary frontiers left to us, so when a new one materializes here in the Valley, it feels like a blessing.
Admittedly, I had a learning curve. The restaurants – all located in Central and West Phoenix – have hard-to-decipher menus filled with hard-to-pronounce dishes, but once the dishes themselves hit the table, they seem surprisingly familiar.
Tomato-tinged jollof rice, for example, looks and tastes like what it is, a precursor to Cajun jambalaya. In fact, the antecedents to Southern and Caribbean cooking are evident at every turn – whether sweet, crispy plantains, succulent chicken submerged in gravy-like sauce, or an abundance of vegetables (spinach, okra, greens and potatoes) cooked down with onion, chiles and spices into spicy, soulful stews to be eaten over rice. It’s all so easy to love.
Indeed, I fall hard for the first restaurant on my list: Authentic Liberian Cuisine (7017 N. 19th Ave., Phoenix, 602-296-7100, authenticliberiancuisine.com), a homey spot whose black-and-white couch, African masks and TV tuned to Afrobeat videos reminds me of someone’s living room.
Orders are taken at the counter, where daily specials are posted on a white board. Out first: a heaping platter of ivory jollof rice, topped with crisp fried chicken wings, shrimp and sausage, which could easily feed four. The inclusion of a frozen vegetable medley is surely an American adaptation, but this everything-but-the-kitchen sink dish is delish just the same – fluffy rice with spicy, complex flavors.
“Spicy” is the operative word here. That goes for spinach, cassava and okra, three different dishes chunky with meat (sometimes chicken, sometimes beef, sometimes pork), each cooked down to soupy complexity and served with mountains of perfect white rice. The okra sets fire to tongue and lips. I love it.
Crispy “Lib wings,” basted in spicy-sweet sauce, are far less aggressive, delicious with plantains so caramelized they’re almost candy. Another of my favorites is fried red snapper, topped with skillet-browned onions and bell peppers and sided by browned plantains and attieke, an Ivory Coast specialty made from grated, fermented cassava root. Its texture is a bit like couscous, its flavor slightly tangy. If you love big, bold tastes, Authentic Liberian is your best bet.
West Hut (3110 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, 602-595-4279, west-hut.com) turns out classic dishes from Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon, and it’s the most approachable of the three, offering table service, a shaded patio and a pleasant interior decorated with African baskets and thatch. However, the first dish we’re served – dry, rock-hard puff-puff (Nigerian fried doughnuts) – should never have left the kitchen. Things improve with kelewele (plantains topped with spicy, savory seasoning) and goat pepper soup, chunks of too-chewy goat meat afloat in a spicy, red-chile-tinted broth that delivers a slow burn. We extinguish it with fufu, a smooth, starchy, mashed potato-like ball of pounded starch (yam, plantain or cassava) that serves as both mop and foil for spicy dishes throughout West Africa.
The signature West Hut combo offers meat (chicken, beef, goat), salad and Ghana’s chile-oil-tinted version of jollof rice – sweeter and simpler than Authentic Liberian’s version, but delicious just the same. I Love Spinach, cooked with mushrooms and egusi seeds, simply isn’t in the same league, but Ghanaian red red, a creamy stew of earthy black-eyed peas, is pleasant, especially with a sprinkle of garri (sour granulated cassava) to enhance its flavor. Groundnut Delight – stewed chicken floating in rich, savory, peanutty gravy – is the best of the lot, delicious with tangy banku, a big, soft ball of fermented, maize-based dough. West Hut provides the broadest – though least exciting – introduction to West African food.
Of the three restaurants on this list, Liberian-owned African Kitchen (3543 W. Dunlap Ave., Phoenix, 480-532-5512) might be my favorite, due in large part to its insanely good red snapper, fried to a glorious crunch and served whole with pepper sauce, crispy plantains and couscous-like attieke. Our server instructs us to pour a side of soupy mayonnaise-based sauce, chunky with onion and tomato, over the attieke, which we do. And then we swoon. The interplay of textures and flavors is off the charts.
Be sure to read the big, printed menu on the wall behind the ordering counter carefully. Scrawled in between other selections are the words “chuck rice w/ gravy and chicken or fish.” Do not ignore them. This is another wonderful dish: fried chicken morsels coated in spicy-sweet, garlic-laced sauce thick with tomato and red bell pepper. The green and white colors of chuck rice (aka “Liberian check rice,” typically greened up with jute leaf or spinach) are stunning with the chicken. Palm butter soup, made with palm tree nuts, chiles and chicken, sounds a bit odd, but it’s wonderful – ultra-rich and a tad greasy, its velvety texture perfect with neutral-flavored fufu. For dessert, there’s coarse but lovely rice cake, a not-too-sweet ending to a fantastic meal.
All three of these restaurants bring the rich culinary history of West Africa to our door. Don’t miss them.