Jollof rice is steaming in the cooker, chunks of plantain are bubbling in a pot on the stove, corn bread muffins are rising in the countertop oven, and yaji-seasoned chicken is sizzling on the grill at Suya Suya, a new West African restaurant at 400 Fairmount Ave. in Northern Liberties.
Suya Suya — as well as Fudena, on its way to a Center City location — is aiming to share West African cuisine with the American masses. Both allow customers to create mix-and-match meals as bowls and platters, much as the similarly fast-casual Chipotle does with Mexican food and Cava with Middle Eastern.
For first-time restaurateur Dera Nd-Ezuma, Suya Suya is a chance to do something more personal and satisfying than manage books as a CPA for another company.
“I’ve always wanted to share my culture, and I figured the best way to do that is by sharing our food,” said Nd-Ezuma, 31, who came to the United States as a junior in high school, a 6-foot-10 teen fresh from a basketball training camp in Abuja, Nigeria. After two years at Life Center Academy in Burlington Township, he attended Rider University on a scholarship, majoring in economics and playing center on the Broncs.
Nd-Ezuma and his fiancée, Sarah Jost, who happens to be a business developer, secured the restaurant space in early 2020, just before COVID-19 hit.
While they built it and waited out most of the pandemic, Omega Dabale — a Nigerian-born DJ and cook — rode by on his bike one day and stopped when he saw the sign reading “Suya Suya,” after the grilled meats of Nigeria.
Dabale asked if they needed a DJ. What they really needed was a cook who could help turn Nd-Ezuma’s street-food recipes into restaurant quality and keep the kitchen running smoothly.
Dabale now is a partner in the restaurant, whose cheery dining room’s focal point is a poster print of a street market in Lagos.
This week South African rapper Kabelo Mabalane provided the soundtrack while Nd-Ezuma and Dabale set up for lunch. At precisely 11:30 a.m. — the opening time Tuesday to Sunday — the computer printer began spitting out delivery orders, drivers arrived for pickups, and a few customers popped in to sit inside. There’s outdoor seating, as well.
Suya Suya’s menu is simple: For $12.99, choose a protein (steak, chicken, roasted Brussels sprouts), a base (jollof rice, vegan jollof rice, jollof pasta, uto rice, kale slaw), and a side of sweet plantains or a corn bread muffin. Soft drinks and zero-proof beer are in the fridge; it’s BYOB.
Jollof rice, flavored with meat, tomatoes, onions, and other vegetables, is the bestseller; the house specialty is what Nd-Ezuma calls uto rice — white rice topped with a rich sausage sauce.
“Once you try it, that’s what you’ll order next time,” Nd-Ezuma said. The amount of yaji, a spice that Nd-Ezuma said he obtains from his parents’ farm and blends himself, governs the heat. (Another form of yaji, containing peanuts, is used in the meats’ preparation.)
Suya Suya will get company in the bowl game, perhaps in summer 2021, from another West African newcomer, Fudena.
Ruth Nakaar, a first-generation Ghanaian American with an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, started as a pop-up and ghost kitchen, and is hoping to open a brick-and-mortar location at 104 S. 21st St. in Center City.
Her goal: scaling Fudena into a chain, bringing kakro, waakye, and jollof rice bowls to a wide audience.
Nakaar told the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton magazine that Fudena — a play on the Dagaare expression “fu di naa” or “have you eaten?” — “is the answer to a frustration that a lot of West Africans like myself have felt: finding quality, restaurant-style food that reminds us of home.”
Nakaar told the magazine that her mission includes community support, “especially the Black diaspora. We aim to source a portion of our ingredients from Black-owned farms since less than 2% of farms in the U.S. are Black-owned. That’s an abysmal statistic that Fudena aims to change.”