Sub-Saharan spice

Sacramento is home to a few different restaurants with African flavors, but they hail from North Africa (namely Morocco) or the continent’s Eastern portion (Ethiopia). I hadn’t heard of any place serving the flavors of sub-Saharan Africa until the opening of Taste of African Cuisine, in south Sacramento near Mack Road and Stockton Boulevard.

Sub-Saharan Africa is, of course, extremely large and varied, and here many of the menu items hail from Nigeria. You’ll find rice cooked with various spices (or plain), black-eyed peas, yams and fried plantains, together with choices of meats—fish, goat, oxtail, chicken—and vegetables like spicy greens. Dishes like the greens and the black-eyed peas bear a strong resemblance to analogous dishes in the South—a poignant reminder of the effects of global history and the African diaspora on American cooking traditions.

That said, much of the menu was more or less unfamiliar, so we chose a large sampler plate, easily big enough for two, as well as a few appetizers and a side of yams (since they were the one menu staple not included on the sampler). Among the appetizers, I was sorry to learn that the meat pies offered on the menu had sold out; they sounded like a nice appetizer, but we moved instead to chicken suya, a skewered kebab of pounded-flat, tender, juicy chicken delicately coated with ground peanuts and spices. There was a strong hint of allspice and a bright kick of peppery heat, making for a complex and mouthwatering flavor. (We didn’t try the “chin-chin,” which the server described as being like a doughnut.)

We also sampled a bowl of the pepper soup, a traditional dish. Our delightful and very welcoming server asked us how hot we wanted it, and when we said, “Medium,” she repeated back, “OK, mild.” It was among the hottest soups we had ever tasted in our lives, so we were glad for her caution. The thin broth, gray and cloudy, looked deceptively placid, but that pepper packed a wallop. We had it with fish, a finny, bony cross section of one, with tender and sweetly mild flesh flaking off and moderating the soup’s heat. We initially asked for oxtail, but they were out, and my husband felt uncertain about the other choice, goat.

We got our goat on the sampler platter, though. It was a hunk of chewy, and in all honesty, tough flesh, crisscrossed with connective tissue of some kind; despite that, I liked it for its gamy, almost musky flavor. It (and all the other meats) was napped with a spicy puréed tomato sauce that added to their flavor. Those other meats included a small hunk of beef that was not quite as tough as the goat but still presented a chewing challenge, another cross-section of fried fish and some really standout chicken, tender and juicy and imbued with spicy flavor.

The sampler was rounded out with three kinds of rice—jollof (cooked in tomatoes and spices), fried rice (pale yellow, with a currylike flavor and a sprinkling of vegetables) and plain—the latter nicely mitigating the heat on the plate. There was also a mound of spicy greens, with an earthy long-cooked flavor and very smoky-tasting black-eyed peas. Slices of sweet, (rather oily) fried plantain were the final component.

As for the small side dish of yams: If you think a yam is a sweet, orange-fleshed potato-like thing, think again; those are sweet potatoes. These are not your mother’s Thanksgiving casserole; the true yam is a tropical tuber, bland of flesh and with a starchy, dryish texture—like yucca or a firm baked potato. Our server suggested them boiled to get the authentic flavor, and they came in cubes with more of that spicy tomato sauce drizzled on top. Truth be told, though, these are more interesting to try for the experience than particularly desirable in their own right. They’re not bad, but there’s not much flavor there.

The various dishes emerged from the kitchen at a measured pace and sometimes were delivered out of order (the appetizer soup came last), but our server was friendly and helpful when we had questions about the menu, and TVs playing African shows (I liked the music videos) passed the time. Taste of African Cuisine offers a small lineup of beers (Heineken, Guinness, a couple of others) and very basic wines (whites, alas, served at room temperature) along with a full range of nonalcoholic beverages. Still, the attractive dining room—painted deep red and celadon, with masks and art adorning the walls—was largely empty on a Saturday night. If you want to sample Nigerian flavors, you might want to go soon. I’m a little worried they might not make it.