By Clare Myers
Irving is America’s most diverse neighborhood, according to a study published last year by the real estate website trulia.com. That may have consequences on aspects of the community far more important than the food scene, but for this column, it means Irving is home to a cornucopia of ethnic restaurants.
Many of these are family-owned joints, tucked away in nondescript plazas with nothing but neon “OPEN” signs and cheap letters over the door to let the rest of the world know they are there.
Determined to discover one of these hidden gems for myself, I dragged a friend to African Village Restaurant – a modest place somewhat difficult to spot behind a 7-11 on Belt Line – to get a taste for an unfamiliar cuisine.
Before you shake your head at my ignorance, dear reader, I will make it clear that I am fully aware that Africa is an entire continent and does not have one homogenous culture, gastronomical or otherwise. The folks at African Village incorporate dishes from all over the continent into the menu, reaching into all four regions for a broad mix of flavors.
The restaurant is small, with a handful of tables that could hold no more than 20 or so people. The seating area is separated from the kitchen by a counter, and in the back corner is a tiny sink rather endearingly marked “Hand Washing Sink.” At a late lunch on a weekday, the place was quiet, with a steady stream of customers picking up takeout or staying to watch the soccer match playing on the television mounted on one wall. We seemed to be the only patrons who were not regulars, but the atmosphere was welcoming.
There were a number of items on the menu that intrigued us, such as “Nyama Choma” ($10), charcoal grilled beef served with ugali, an East Africa starch similar to cornmeal, and “Goat Stew” ($10), a slow-cooked dish that comes with rice. In addition to the rice options, there was a range of items ($8-10) featuring fufu, a West Africa staple with a dough-like consistency.
We opted for the two lunch specials, “Peanut Soup” ($6.99) and “Chicken Curry” ($6.99), both served with rice. Both soups turned out to be more like stews, with big chunks of chicken on the bone in thick sauce.
The peanut soup was unexpectedly spicy, a delicious complement to its nutty flavor. In contrast, the yellow curry was considerably less spicy; its light texture and mild heat proved to be a pleasant combination. In both dishes, the chicken was on the bone and incredibly tender. The only downside to this was that we weren’t given knives with our meals and were not quite sure of the proper etiquette for eating the meat. But no one seemed to mind our, well, unorthodox efforts of separating the chicken from the bone.
Midway through our meal we were delighted to discover the seasoning sauce on the table made our already tasty stew-over-rice selections even better. Maggi sauce does not come from Africa, but it is considered an essential part of many African dishes, and the umami flavor added extra depth to both dishes.
The staff at African Village was warm and friendly. Our waitress helped us navigate the unfamiliar territory of a menu consisting largely of items we had never heard of, and the kitchen staff brought us a free plate of doh doh and fried plantains (normally $3) to taste.
It took us a few minutes to figure out that the doh doh were balls of fried dough; our waitress explained that it was a simple preparation of flour, sugar and water. We agreed that they tasted rather bland until we realized that we were supposed to eat them with the plantains. The doh doh added balance to the sweet and salty plantains, although I preferred the plantains by themselves.
The portion sizes were generous, not large enough to merit leftover boxes but substantial enough to feed two athletes. We left African Village extremely full, but with every intention of returning.