7532 Brooklyn Blvd., Brooklyn Park;
Hours: 11:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday; closed Sundays
Think you're pretty slick with your working knowledge of Vietnamese, creole, and Sicilian cooking? Well, guess again; the bar is raised. Your new challenge involves foods eaten in the band that stretches across Central Africa: Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya. Where, you ask, could you possibly get dishes representative of all of these nations? Why, in Brooklyn Park, of course: Pan-African Restaurant opened in September, the brainchild of H. Kwaku Addy, a Liberian émigré.
"Most of the menu is West African, but some is East African," says Addy. "We have some real good cooks in the backroom, my cousins and sisters. My entire family has restaurants in Liberia, and some of us traveled to other countries after the war, where we picked up other African cuisines. But what is important is that we are the first [African] restaurant in Minnesota that doesn't have just one cuisine. We are pan-African; you can eat from all over Africa here."
Addy is entirely correct: There's nothing like it at all. The restaurant is enormous--truly barn-sized, with a vaulted ceiling, a few dozen booths and tables in the front, and a large area for dancing in the back. It looks like one of the State Fair church dining halls, except instead of hash browns and pancakes they're serving fufu, Fanta, smoked-fish gravy, and pepper soup.
The vast room hosts a vast menu: Three pages bursting with daily specials. I recommend starting the meal with "roast meat and fried plantains" ($5.99), pepper chicken ($4.99), or the Monrovian platter--which boasts all three ($11.99). "Roast meat" is thin slices of beef or lamb coated in a spice mixture, then seared; it tastes a bit like gyro meat. Pepper chicken turns out to be chicken wings made with lots of black pepper. And, of course, plantains are fried sections of the banana-like fruit. If they run out of plantains, as they did on one of my visits, you can substitute "Bong County fries." Bong County is a Liberian province where they grow a lot of cassava, and Bong County fries are large pieces of deep-fried cassava. Sometimes the appetizer platters come with a really great "fried-pepper sauce" which isn't at all hot, but is sweet, like honey, with an underlying savory aspect. Yum. Sometimes, however, Pan-African has only "pepper sauce," which is hotter than a sauna in a bonfire on the surface of the sun. Fried-pepper sauce is glossy and comes in a large ramekin. Pepper sauce is more liquid and comes in a small ramekin. Learn from my mistakes.
Cayenne and chile traditionally play a big role in West African cooking, but Addy has toned down the heat for Minnesotans. Everything I tried, except that sauce, was quite mellow. Addy says he's done quite a bit of thinking on how to make West African food accessible to newbies. "The Monrovian platter is a Liberian dish," he says. "It is on the menu here because it's very easy for Americans to understand." Equally easy to understand is the Pan-African burger ($7.29), a basic version with a good bun, caramelized onions, and Swiss cheese, which comes with French or Bong County fries.
Less easy for Americans to understand--or at least this American--is fufu, a West African staple made by boiling semi-fermented cassava flour into a glutinous mass. Roll it into a ball and you've got fufu. The first time I had fufu, I chewed it, a disconcerting experience: It's gummy and it clings to your teeth. (A friend who spent time in Liberia says fufu is an acquired taste: "It's Liberian lutefisk.") I've heard that the big problem with Westerners and fufu is that we're always trying to chew the stuff. Fufu is not to be chewed, or tasted, fufu is to be torn and swallowed. The second time I had fufu, I tried not to chew, but couldn't get the hang of that trick. (Of course, you could get rice instead of fufu with your stews, but that would be a bit like going to Paris and eating only at McDonald's.)
One of the dishes served with fufu is pepper soup ($8.99), a thin stew of chicken, beef, and dried fish presented with stewed okra and chocolatey ground chile powder. For my American palate, the pungent combination was strange and gamy. Potato-greens and rice is made with finely chopped sweet-potato greens ($8.99), stewed with lots of vegetable oil and a smoky chunk of beef--not unlike collards, but with a much silkier texture. My favorite dish was a Friday special called "Dry rice with fried fish or fried chicken--Liberian style" ($8.99). It's similar to Cajun dirty rice--salty, smoky, and spicy--but with dried fish instead of sausage or bacon. (There is no pork served at Muslim-friendly Pan-African, but they do have Heineken and Budweiser, and they hope to have wine soon.) The fried chicken with my dry rice was pretty good, deep-fried at a high temperature until the skin was mahogany and incredibly crisp.
There are a couple of desserts listed on the menu but they were never available on my visits. Lots of things were not available on my visits--at least half of whatever I attempted to order. I've concluded that when dining here the most sensible approach is to put yourself in your server's hands instead of trying to work from the menu. More sensible still is to visit when there's music and dancing. Thursdays are R&B, Friday and Saturday feature African music, and Sunday is soca (soul and calypso) night. There are also live African bands; call for details. One night I got to witness the transformation of the space from brightly lighted dining hall to party-lighted dance hall. DJ equipment was set up as I nibbled on Bong County fries, and by the time I set down my fork, colorfully clothed dancers had begun staking out prime tables, and mirror-discs of light were spinning. I gathered my coat feeling very adventurous indeed to have dined on fufu and pepper soup--well, adventurous in a meek and clueless kind of way, since I could practically hear the echo of American restaurant critics circa 1932 in my head: That-there Eye-talian food ain't bad--iffin ya like garlic!
Will you be the first on your block?
A NORDEAST CHRISTMAS: In all my long years of writing this column, I think no story has generated such recurrent interest as the time I wrote about Quang, the Nicollet Avenue Vietnamese restaurant. Why? Because I emphasized that I really, truly go there, on my own dime, as often as I can, thus allaying the suspicions of readers who think this column is purely fictional. With that in mind, as a special holiday treat, here's another place that I really, truly go: Blackey's Bakery. Blackey's is run by Danish baker Svea Ernst, who moved here ten years ago and took over what had been a Polish bakery for 80-some years before that. Today Blackey's sells both Polish and Danish specialties, and some estimable doughnuts. I go there mainly for the rügbröd, a dark-black pumpernickel that is heavy as a brick and as dense as Dan Quayle. One slice of this bread, toasted, topped with a little cheese is an incredibly filling, invigorating lunch. It's one of the primary elements of my diet. You can cut a loaf into quarters and then into thin slices for hors d'oeuvres: Top with herring, cheese, gravlax, or egg salad for some very photogenic, easy starters.
Sometimes I lie to my nearest and dearest and tell them that the fresh loaves of rügbröd on the table were not from a recent trip to Blackey's but were pulled from the freezer. Why? Because if I don't, people whine at me for not having bought them kringle, enormous 27-layer Danish pastries filled with custard and topped with almonds. Kringle are nothing short of heavenly, and I believe if it were up to my nearest and dearest, I would spend the better part of every week delivering kringle to them.
At Christmas, Blackey's does somersaults supplying treats. Mahjoner are paper-thin spice cookies made with slices of almonds. The dough pulls away from the almonds when the cookies bake, leaving little windows of almonds; if you hold them up to the light they seem to glow. They're awfully good, and they cost $1.50 for a quarter-pound bag. This year I tried, for the first time, a Danish treat called mazarin ($11)--basically a pie crust filled with almond paste, topped with apricot glaze and more almond paste, and dressed with chocolate. Ernst insists that mazarin is only for Danish people, and you eat only the tiniest sliver of it. I should have listened to her. Mazarin is strictly only for people who want to eat a wedge of marzipan. I brought mine to a party, and watched with amusement as people cut themselves a big slice, took a bite, and hid the plate behind a potted plant.
Of course, I'm not the only fan of Blackey's. Ernst now sells her bread to some 70 local restaurants: Ever had one of those big, soft hamburger buns at the Convention Grill? Blackey's. Simek's also carries Blackey's bread, buns, and dinner rolls. Sam's Club carries their egg twist, pumpernickel, marble rye, Polish rye, and onion kaiser rolls.
I was at Blackey's a few days before Thanksgiving getting my rügbröd for Turkey Day when a man on a similar errand started ribbing me. "Can't believe you eat that stuff--my wife does too!" He began, shaking his head. "What are you going to do with it, sandbag the river? Shore up your basement foundation? Weight down the car to make it easier to get out of ditches?" He went on and on. We both got our bread, we headed out to the street. When I left him, he was loading cheesecakes ($5 for a quarter pan) into the back of his car, still shouting after me and laughing. "Defense in case of burglars? Building a bomb shelter? Ballast on the high seas?" Quang Restaurant; 2719 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis, (612) 870-4739; Blackey's Bakery, 639 22nd Ave. NE (between University and Central), Minneapolis; (612) 789-5326.