I still find it odd that so many NYC restaurateurs “hide” their nationality. A decent number of Jordanians and Algerians and Moroccans refer to their cuisine as simply “Middle Eastern,” many Bangladeshi restaurants seem content to pretend that their food is “Indian,” and plenty of Puerto Rican- and Dominican-owned places call their food “Spanish.”
New York’s African restaurants, however, seem to be the most universally vague about their cuisine. A large majority of the African restaurants I’ve seen in NYC just call themselves “African” or “African and American”—as if that narrows things down at all. Sure, there’s plenty of culinary overlap among the 50-something nations of Africa… but an awning that just says “African cuisine” leaves plenty to the imagination.
So when I saw Aicha Restaurant (“African and American cuisine”) on Nostrand Avenue near the northern edge of Crown Heights, I got nosy. I peered in the window, and saw only one customer (a very friendly West African who could easily be mistaken for Don Cheadle’s brother) in the place. So I walked in with a big, goofy, touristy grin on my face, hoping that an owner or staff member might take the time to educate a friendly-but-mildly-clueless Midwestern boy on the African delights in the steam table.
The restaurant’s Senegalese owner was warm enough, but he wasn’t much of a talker. I tried my best to draw him and a friendly female bystander (perhaps his wife or partner?) into a conversation about the food, but they seemed determined to answer my questions with as few words as possible. They smiled shyly as I filled my plate with rice, peppery stewed chicken, peanut stew, and three different types of oily green mush; they helpfully explained that one of the green stews was made from okra, and the other two were made from cassava leaves, but just shrugged when I asked what the difference was between the two cassava leaf stews: “different meat , maybe” was all they would offer.
The reticence of Aicha’s owners did nothing to diminish the fact that I was eating a delicious, varied plate of West African food for the ridiculously low price of $4.38… just $3.99 a pound, which is roughly half the price of the soggy crap served in Midtown corner stores. At that price, the owners could have been downright mean instead of just shy, and I probably wouldn’t have held it against them.
The “peanut stew” that the owners identified was mafé, one of Senegal’s national dishes, made from bits of stewed beef or lamb and… well, peanuts. The mafé and stewed chicken were both tasty enough, but I get far more excited about oily piles of green mush. No really—I’m not kidding. I could happily live off of okra and spicy stewed greens—if, of course, I didn’t have to worry about the intestinal fury that would accompany that diet. I’d even say that I like spicy, oily, green mush more than I like gelatinous Korean-style fish skins, and that’s a pretty bold statement.
Aicha earns some serious points for the quality and quantity and cheapness of its mushy green dishes. Aicha’s okra (also with bits of beef) could have used a bit more spice, but it was still delicious. I was absolutely crazy about the cassava leaf concoctions, although I struggled to tell them apart. Both were reasonably spicy, and seemed to contain identical chunks of meat; one of the dishes was just a little bit yellower and spicier than the other, leading me to suspect that a slightly different type of hot pepper or a different amount of palm oil had been used—but that’s just a guess.
As happy as I was to munch on a big plate of okra and spicy cassava leaves, I won’t pretend that Aicha serves the most amazing African food I’ve eaten in NYC; Fatima and Abidjan still have Aicha beat, in my humble opinion. But by the standards of $3.99/pound hot bars, Aicha offers one of the most impressive meals you’ll find anywhere in NYC.
602 Nostrand Avenue, Brooklyn
Subway: Atlantic Avenue (A, C trains)