Mohammed Abdul may be the owner of Accra Restaurant, but the Aunties run the show at this soul food outpost in the Bronx.
When I walked into the place on Saturday afternoon, I noticed a banner over the buffet: “You are welcome to the ‘original’ true African restaurant.”
Beneath the banner, the Aunties lorded over vats of stew, piles of fish balls, and a platter of fish turnovers, sporting fuchsia head scarves and laughing in a language I couldn’t identify.
Across from the buffet, owner Mohammed sat behind bullet-proof glass, surrounded by boxes of fufu flour and cans of corned beef, shouting what sounded like expletives into his cell phone.
When he got off the phone, he told me I could take pictures “as long as you have good intentions” and explained that Accra had been at its current location for about four years. Their previous place near the Macombs Dam Bridge, “the first African restaurant in the USA,” had burned down.
I’d arrived at Accra thanks to a recommendation from Joe Kodjoni, one of my taxi schoolmates who came to New York via Togo on the strength of his deejaying skills.
Joe claims that the current President of Togo owes him $5 for a CD. He quit his latest deejaying gig in Long Island City because the club owner wouldn’t let him play Jay-Z: “My fans expect me to play Jay-Z. I couldn’t let them down.”
The taxi driver to be, who’s learning English but is fluent in French and German, has a 10-year-old daughter in Pennsylvania who calls him every night before she goes to sleep. It’s for her, and for the dance club he hopes to open in Togo, that Joe wants to drive a cab.
When he’s after flavors from home in his adopted city, Accra is his favorite place to eat, even though the owners are from Ghana. Since Togo and Ghana share a border in West Africa, Joe explained that the two countries’ food is “like the same.”
I’d planned on ordering the fufu and yams Joe suggested when I went to Accra, but somehow I got side-tracked by the Aunties. Before I could say fufu, they handed me a fish turnover and filled a container with black-eyed peas, spinach and fish, chicken and cow foot stew, cassava fried in coconut oil and rice. They were out of yams. Everything cost $9.
I dragged my bounty over to the empty dining area, where purple fluorescents illuminated the glow-in-the-dark paint in an African sunset and the SyFy channel staged a space battle on mute.
I started moaning after one bite of fish turnover. Only insane amounts of butter could have made the pastry as perfect as it was. The fish inside – canned tuna with sautéed onions – was an afterthought that let the pastry bask in its glory.After the turnover, spinach and salted fish (spicy and mixed with fish bones) and black-eyed peas were solid and satisfying, but it was the chicken and cow foot stew that struck me dumb.
The marrow from the cow feet was a velvety bouillon that sent richness in every direction, and the chicken that fell off the bone was soaked in deep, slow-cooked flavor.
While I devoured my stew with fried cassava and rice, Mohammed’s son cleaned the empty tables and picked my jacket off the floor. When I asked him who did the cooking, he gave me a shy smile: “My Aunties and sometimes my father.”
Which of those Aunties was responsible for the delicious turnover? For the amazing chicken and cow foot stew? A part of me wanted to thank the food sorceress directly, to praise her powers to her face.
But a bigger part of me sensed that she didn’t want to be singled out. All of those women were tied to the flavors in some way – and all of them seemed invested in making that food stick to my soul.
2041 Davidson Ave. – Morris Heights (Bronx)
Credit cards accepted, but cash is better
Prices: $2-10.50 (all dishes come with your choice of stew, gravy or soup)