I must have passed Salimata hundreds of times and really never noticed it there, not very far from where I reside. Maybe it's because it is located in the shadow of the Masjid Aqsa Mosque, a rec center of sorts for the large community of West African Muslims who populate the area, known as Little Senegal and always bustling with activity. Or maybe I was unaware of its presence because it just blended in with the many small, family-run African restaurants in the neighborhood.
Like Gerry, who chooses based on how long it takes us to get to a place, or Eugene, who looks for the new cuisines to try, Mike from Yonkers has an African thing going — his last two picks, Treichville and African American Marayway, both featured the cuisine of the countries of West Africa. Salimata’s represented Guinea, though all of us would be hard-pressed to distinguish the subtle differences between the food of Guinea with that, for example, of Ghana or even, Guinea-Bissau. But getting to Salimata couldn’t be any easier for me so I certainly wasn’t complaining about his choice.
Greeting us outside the restaurant was a burly man dressed in what looked like the sweat suit version of the traditional African buba. He had a big sack open and filled with a haphazard assortment of shoes he was selling. “Take a look at my shoes?” he asked, holding the bag open. “What size are you?”
We told him we were going in to eat at Salimata now. Maybe later, someone unwisely said, thinking he might be gone by the time we finished. He nodded approvingly at our dining choice that, we soon found out, also served as his base of operations.
The only table big enough to handle our group of six was close to the front door and the constant commotion of take-out customers and taxi and livery cab drivers moving in and out had us keeping our jackets on to stay warm. All of us were pleased that now, after two absences, Rick had rejoined us, and after taking a quick glance at the menu he decided on the guinea fowl without any hesitation.
The menu was ample, but as with our past experiences at other small African restaurants, it’s hit or miss on what will be available when you happen to be at the restaurant. In our case, some of the West African classics like thu djeun (stewed fish), chicken yassa, and lafidi (rice with roasted goat meat) were done for the day.
Our waitress, who was scuttling back and forth between taking table orders and returning to the take-out counter in the back of the slim restaurant, recited the few items that remained, such as grilled chicken, grilled fish, and steak. That didn’t satisfy either Gerry or Zio, who persisted, pressing her with some of the other menu items, forcing her to squint at the menu.
Zio was adamant about the “bouillon avec fonio” also known as cow feet soup, while Gerry was intrigued by the “suppa kandja,” a mix of lamb and fish in an okra sauce. Keeping it simple for our harried waitress, Eugene and I opted for the grilled fish, while Mike from Yonkers ordered the grilled chicken.
There were two television monitors at either end of the restaurant, where the only decoration was a poster endorsing “Boubacar Bah for President.” The televisions were tuned to CNN and after our enormous platters arrived at our table, President Obama was shown making a speech. The volume on the televisions were turned up and all the other diners either eating or waiting for their take-out orders watched raptly.
We, on the other hand, did not show as much respect, loudly commenting on how Rick’s guinea fowl looked pretty much identical to Mike from Yonkers’ grilled chicken and both just as dry, while the fish Eugene and I ordered, which we later learned was tilapia, looked like they had spent their early years swimming in what probably was a tank in a Bronx farm, consuming a steroid-rich diet. Despite their enormous size, the fish, unlike the chicken, were moist, smothered in a light tomato sauce and served with a mound of couscous and mustard-flavored grilled onions. Gerry’s dark green mashed okra concoction had a gamey, overly salted taste that one most definitely would need to acquire to appreciate and the hard gelatinous cow feet anchored in Zio’s soup had him throwing up his hands. “I just can’t eat it,” he said shaking his head in defeat.
The ridiculously inexpensive check for all the food consumed softened the few misses and by the time our platters were cleared and we made our way out of the restaurant, the shoe salesman had returned to his position. He looked at us hopefully and gestured to his sack of shoes with one hand while holding the half-eaten chicken leg in the other. “So, are you ready to buy some shoes now?”