Photography by Grace Dickinson
The West African coast is at least 4,500 miles from Philadelphia, but an authentic taste of the region’s cuisine is waiting much closer to home. Less than one-thousandth the distance away—within a radius of around four and a half miles from City Hall—there are several lively West African communities, and these enclaves in Southwest and West Philly are studded with restaurants run by immigrants serving the food of their homeland. Geopolitically, West Africa comprises at least 15 different nations, but culinarily speaking, distinctions across borders are much less defined. Most of these eateries offer a wide variety of dishes, from Senegalese peanut stew to Nigerian fufu to Burkinabé brochettes. Ambiance varies as well, but one thing remains consistent: With huge portions priced almost exclusively between $10 and $13, West African dining offers one of the best values in town. These five restaurants lie on nearly a straight line along the western segment of the city, spread through the neighborhoods of Spruce Hill, Cedar Park, Kingsessing and Elmwood. Most are family run, and each has its charms. (Take note: Many don’t take credit cards, so bring cash.)
Smoke from charcoal grills swirls from the kitchen in back and beckons passersby to the entrance of this brightly colored, split-level dining room. Le Mandingue is the largest of all the eateries on this list, and also the farthest-flung, set less than 10 blocks from the city’s southwestern edge. The owners have created a cheery environment that draws diverse crowds (one Caribbean gentleman makes a twice-weekly run for yassa, the chicken stew that his wife can’t live without). A line at the order counter is common, but worth the wait is the phenomenal deep-fried whole fish, which flakes off the bones and has just a hint of spice on the crunchy skin, enhanced by a dip in earthy brown chili-tomato-onion sauce. For dessert, pick up a bag of kala, sugar-dusted fritters that are like a West African version of zeppole.
AFRICAN SMALL POT
Abdarahmane Diop has an impressive food pedigree—professional cooking experience in his native Mauritania was followed by culinary school in Milan and then 20 years helming Italian kitchens in Delaware County—but he insists the narrow dining room he now oversees in Southwest Philly is actually the domain of his son, Bocar. What the younger Diop lacks in experience, he makes up for in enthusiasm, offering complimentary cups of atai—minty, sugary tea—to customers waiting for their food next to screens showing soccer games. A handful of high-tops and tables are available for dining in, but to-go orders are well accommodated, with dishes like the chili oil–flecked “peanut sauce” (a stew, actually, with huge chunks of lamb swimming in the thick broth) packed separately from the rice it’s meant to be spooned over.
The stretch of Woodland Avenue shrouding this café is even less developed than the part further southwest, and it would be easy to miss the cozy, orange-walled dining room among the sea of boarded- up facades. Don’t. Owner Jeanne Hien ran a restaurant in her native Burkina Faso, and when she came stateside, she called on her brother to join her as head chef. With experience in swanky Center City kitchens like Le Bec-Fin, The Oceanaire and Le Jardin, Abdoul Sow knows where to find good ingredients, and also how to sell them to non-African customers. The grilled chicken is especially popular: hacked-up chunks of bone-in poultry soaked in a chili-garlic marinade, softly braised and then charred to a smoky finish on the grill. Topped with a scattering of chopped tomatoes, onions and herbs and served with a side of attiéké (a couscous-like dish made from grated cassava pulp), it’s one of the only entrées available if you just show up. To sample other parts of the menu, just call in your order in advance.
Further north than the main cluster of West African spots, this Baltimore Avenue dining room offers cuisine that’s just as classic, though in this case the French influence is more prominent. (Even the atmosphere is more sultry than the norm, with low lighting and posters along the walls giving a row of cracking plastic-upholstered booths a welcoming appeal.) Owner Harouna Zita landed in Philly four years ago by way of Burkina Faso, and his version of bissap—hibiscus juice—is both sharp and sweet. It’s a great accompaniment to the dibi viande, grilled lamb sliced crosswise so you have to gnaw the flavorful meat off the nuggets of bone at the center. France makes another showing in the dessert, where surprisingly light crepes are offered filled with various fruit compote fillings.
Arguably Philly’s best-known destination for West African fare, this Spruce Hill spot has been open for nearly a decade. Senegalese chef-owner Youma Ba has catered events at City Hall and was recently honored by the Mayor’s Commission on African and Caribbean Immigrant Affairs. The plain, strip mall entrance that leads to her kitchen belies a welcoming interior, where multihued masks dance along on the walls and smooth, cushioned seating surrounds every table. Despite the (slightly) fancier ambiance here, the food is legitimate, especially the thieboudienne—a rich, tomato-based fish and rice stew that’s sometimes called the national dish of Senegal and is best washed down with a bright, spicy glass of fresh ginger juice.
6620 Woodland Ave. 215.726.0543
African Small Pot
6505 Woodland Ave. 267.713.7603
5353 Woodland Ave. 215.729.1074
4519 Baltimore Ave. 267.292.5805
4317 Chestnut St. 215.387.1970