RESTAURANT REVIEW : African Fast Fare at Food Nest Has Customers Singing Its Praise
Here’s a sign we don’t often see: African Fast Food. It’s an accurate one, though. The Food Nest is a fast-food restaurant serving Nigerian dishes from a steam table.
It’s in a shopping center two blocks south of the Beverly Center, and rather dwarfed by it. As a restaurant, it’s just a plastic-tabletop little place with nothing much in the way of decor but the odd African mask or piece of folkloric art. There are also photographs of all the Jacksons on the wall, including one signed by Michael at a meal that Food Nest owner May Ndubuisi catered awhile back.
It is very evidently the real thing. From time to time, you’ll see homesick Africans walk in, beaming with anticipation of old-country flavors. The Food Nest counts on such regular customers, and has a “food club” where you get a free meal every sixth time you eat there.
So what do you have at an African fast food restaurant? At the daily lunch and dinner, there always seems to be a “curried” chicken dish that definitely deserves to be on all the time. It’s meaty, with an elusive earthy sort of spiciness totally unlike the sharp, perfumey flavor of Indian curry (with which it has little in common but turmeric). Sometimes there is another dish as well, which could be a version of curried chicken with spinach, or beef or turkey made the same way. There might be a curried catfish, hotter and rather more like an Indian curry.
There also will be various vegetable side dishes and a rice dish with the same kind of earthy spiciness as the chicken, jellof rice. And there will usually be moi-moi, which is a real discovery. Moi-moi is more or less tofu made from exciting black-eyed peas instead of dull soybeans. It is so laborious to prepare that even in Nigeria many people don’t bother to make it at home. You have to peel the beans before cooking them--even before soaking them in water--crush them and steam the paste.
The result is an unusual delicacy, faintly tart with a smooth texture somewhere between pate and halvah and an inspiringly refined version of the black-eyed pea flavor. It’s said to be a dish that vegetarians often order, and you can certainly put together a pretty good vegetarian meal out of moi-moi with some fried plantain slices, vegetables (cabbage and carrots, mostly) sauteed in faintly spicy oil, and that excellent jellof rice.
The odd thing is that although vegetarians can eat so chastely at the Food Nest, on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays (or anytime on two days’ notice) the restaurant also caters to the funkiest imaginable taste for meat. That’s when it serves traditional “soups” (thick stews is more like it) such as ngwo-ngwo or egusi.
Ngwo-ngwo is advertised as African gumbo, but it’s really like a thick chili con carne that has decided to turn into menudo. It’s red and meaty, like chili, but full of all sorts of inner parts of the cow, particularly tripe. This is meat-eating for the unafraid, and if you order it spicy it’s considered a cure for the common cold.
Egusi is even funkier. The name refers to one of the flavorings, the ground seed of a particular kind of watermelon (the other flavoring is palm kernel oil). You can get it with spinach or an imported dried green called (a bit misleadingly) “bitter leaf.” It is rather like the West African soup-stew called palaver sauce in its combining of meat and fish with greens.
The fish is usually okporoko, which turns out to be that cousin of salt cod called stockfish, which Nigerians traditionally import from Norway. The meat includes not only chunks of beef but . . . more tripe. The combination of tripe and dried fish flavors is a real test of your willingness to eat protein.
On Sundays, so they say, there are special dishes: akara balls, which seem to be a sort of falafel made with black-eyed peas, and souya, which are described as little skewers of beef or chicken “mixed with fresh peanuts.” I’m taking their word on this, because they were out of both last Sunday. An American woman had bought up most of the prepared souya sticks for a party.
There’s not much in the way of dessert here, but what there is seems to be ultra-authentic. You usually can find chin-chin, little sticks of dense, crumbly shortbread, slightly sweet and scented with nutmeg. Sometimes, they tell me, there is also poff-poff, a sweet fried bread, but that was also gone last Sunday. I don’t like to think it’s the same lady ordering everything up, because I want to try all the African fast food I can.
Suggested dishes: four-way combination (curried chicken, jellof rice, sauteed vegetables, fried plantain), $4.50; moi-moi, $2.85; chin-chin, $1.
Food Nest, 422 S. San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 652-6710. Open daily for lunch and dinner (11 a.m. until midnight Friday and Saturday, till 11 p.m. other nights). Parking in lot. No alcoholic beverages. No credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $14 to $25.