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Diamond in the Bronx

“Do you want to go to the Bronx?”

I’d hopped out of the cab on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. (a.k.a. Seventh Ave.) in Harlem, bounded over to La Marmite, discovered it was closed, and returned to report the bad news to Godfred.

The taxi driver had spent the last twenty minutes slogging through 65 blocks of traffic to get to this, his favorite African restaurant in Manhattan. We were trying to figure out Plan B, but Godfred wasn’t sure I was up for a trip to the Bronx, where I got the sense that he knew of something tasty.

“Do you know a good place in the Bronx? I’ll go anywhere if the food is good.”

“Yeah. That’s where I live.”

“OK, then let’s go.”

“You want to go to the Bronx?” he asked me again, glancing at the meter.

I told him yes. We were already $25 into our journey, and Godfred was fascinating to talk to (he’d lived in Germany for a while, learned French, and spoke English, Akan and Ashanti), though I was fading fast and wondering if I could eat the hard-boiled egg in my snack bag without him noticing.

We crossed the Harlem River and merged onto Grand Concourse, passing the Hot Stuff 99 Discount Store and Yankee Stadium, where Godfred plays soccer with his compatriots from Ghana on the weekends.

“The Bronx is cool,” he said, “You can’t bullsh** here now. The police took control. There are [even] white people living here.”

Godfred has lived in the Bronx since he came to the U.S. eight years ago. In many ways, his story echoes the message that President Obama expressed in his speech to the Ghanaian Parliament on Saturday, during his 1-day visit to Godfred’s home country.

Prosperity can only be achieved, Obama said, “if you take responsibility for your future. And it won’t be easy. It will take time and effort. There will be suffering and setbacks.”

Godfred is a case in point. After five years behind the wheel and countless 18-20 hour shifts, he’s reached a goal that few taxi drivers here ever achieve: he’s the proud owner of a New York City Yellow Cab medallion (there are 47,000 licensed cabbies in New York – but only 13,000 medallions).

The medallion cost him $450,000, and he has 25 years to pay it off. The good news? The price of his medallion has already appreciated $130,000 since he bought it. By 2020, he’s hoping it’ll be worth $1 million.

“New York is the best city,” Godfred said, “They give opportunity to anyone who deserves it. No matter where you’re from. There are some places where they don’t…That’s what makes this the greatest city. But you have to work hard.”

Godfred isn’t done working hard. He and a fellow cabbie from Ghana are scoping out locations in Manhattan for an African restaurant, he told me. They want to open by Christmas.

“It’s hard to find African restaurants in Manhattan. See what happened today? You have to go to the Bronx if you want to get African food,” he explained as he stopped at 184th St. and parallel parked in front of a corner restaurant with tinted windows.

We’d made it to Papaye at last. I was going to eat Ghanaian food for the first time.

I paid the $40 fare. Godfred undid his seatbelt. Apparently, I wasn’t going to eat alone.

Every eye traveled in our direction when we crossed the threshold of that spotless restaurant. The happy prattle that had been bouncing between tables when we opened the door faded to a hush. African pop music filled the silence.

Godfred moved toward the counter, greeting everyone in his path and accepting their slaps on his back. I slunk behind him, feeling as if I’d parachuted into a village where no one expected me and everyone spoke a language I didn’t understand.

I stared at the 21 items on the wall-mounted menu and tried to ignore the fact that Godfred’s male friends were obviously having a field day with the unexpected arrival of a ravenous-looking white woman with an egg in her purse (I didn’t have to understand Ashanti to know that they were wondering what the fufu I was doing there).

Before I could get too confused about the merits of banku with okra meat stew versus fufu and goat, Godfred ordered for me: whole grilled tilapia fish and Jollof rice.

Two plump ladies in plastic hair nets dished up my food with the authority of cooks and handed me a cafeteria tray that was covered – and I mean covered – with plates of fish and rice.

“All of this is for me?”

They nodded and fled into the back kitchen. Godfred picked up my tray and put it on a table with a good view of the flat screen, where two Italian soccer teams were battling it out.

“Are you okay?” he said, standing over me, car keys in hand.

“This looks wonderful,” I said, pressing my palm to my chest, “Thank you so much…Thank you.”

Seeing that I could take the adventure from there, the taxi driver went back to work. A few minutes passed before my gratitude simmered down and I could actually focus on the new flavors in the insane quantity of food in front of me.

I tackled the tilapia first, blanketed with raw onions and fresh tomatoes. The fish was grilled and served whole – head, tail, skin and bones. A filet might have been neater and easier to eat, but it could’ve never packed that kind of punch (it tasted sweet and faintly of salt water) or sealed in that silken texture (I could easily cut it with my plastic fork).

I was just as jazzed with the Jollof rice – served with a helping of smoky chili relish, loaded with palm oil and infused with cayenne pepper and tomatoes and a combination of spices I was too busy devouring to make sense of. Godfred told me that Jollof is popular all over West Africa, and it’s easy to understand why. Jollof comforts you as it invigorates you; it sustains you as it lifts you up with some paranormal combination of stimulating spices. At least the Jollof at Papaye does.

Delicious though it was, I could only make it halfway down the $12 mountain of food on my tray before I had to throw in my napkin and take the rest to go.

The ladies behind the counter looked a little crestfallen when they saw that I hadn’t cleaned my plates (I wished I could’ve explained to them just how blissful those leftovers were going to make me).

“I’ll be back,” I said, “Next time, I’ll try the goat.”

They cracked a smile and moved on to the guy next in line.

Papaye Restaurant
2300 Grand Concourse (at 184th St.)
Fordham – The Bronx
Tel: 718-676-0771
Subway: B, D to 182-183rd St.
Cash only

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  1. Can I be put on your downloads?? Just bought ur book. Heard u on NPR today!!