When Lagos works, there's almost no restaurant where you'd rather be, old funk grooves popping from a tape player back in the kitchen, swaggering dudes lining up at a rear counter for big plastic foam containers of Nigerian dinner to go, tables chaotic with Nigerian families wearing native dress. Lagos is a storefron t Nigerian restaurant a mile south of Beverly Hills, sort of generically ethnic-looking--walls bare except maybe a Nigerian oil company calendar or two, an unused stage, glass-covered tablecloths.
From La Cienega, if you're hurrying toward the freeway, Lagos can looks a little like an abandoned restaurant, windows blacked out, graffiti scratched into surfaces, but inside, it couldn't be livelier.
"Hah, nice bay-bee!" shouts an extravagantly robed Nigerian man to a smiling infant across the room. "You are wearing the same hat as me!"
There is palm wine to drink here, the effects of which Nigerian novelist Amos Tutuola described with vividness sufficient to make it unnecessary to actually try the stuff. On the up side, there is also Star Beer, brewed in Nigeria, which has the apple-like, acidic edge of English cider and which goes well with heavy, spicy Nigerian food.
The menu is long, essentially untranslated, and filled with exotic dishes you haven't seen before unless you're in the practice of eating moin - moin with your cornflakes for breakfast in the morning: amala , akara , beans and dodo , palpe . On the facing page, in French, are listed daily Senegalese specials, elaborate chicken stews and such, which the restaurant doesn't actually serve, but which are nice to dream about if you've ever eaten the great Senegalese food in Brooklyn.
At a Nigerian meal, as at any West African meal, you essentially choose a starch--bland, pounded white yam or cassava root, steamed into a pudding-like consistency--and then get some highly-seasoned stuff to roll into a little ball with the starch with your fingers. Like Thai sticky rice or Liberian fufu, Nigerian pounded yam is fun to eat. In practice, non-Africans are likely to be provided with forks and spoons, plus a large bowlful of pretty much everything on the steam tables that day, usually spicy black-eyed peas, the sweet fried plantains called dodo , and the spicy West African pilaf called Jollof rice.
Moin-moin is usually described as a Nigerian tamale, and the description is pretty close, a big, wet cylinder of steamed black-eyed-pea flour with the consistency of a Nicaraguan nacatamal , stuffed with egg and bits of meat, sliced into half-pucks of dough.
Efo riro, a mass of collard stewed with hot chile until it seems almost to form curds like cottage cheese, is one of the spiciest greens you'll ever encounter this side of Sichuan, drenched with palm oil, pungent enough to flavor something like 14 kilograms of cassava. And you must try egusi stew, pounded melon seeds cooked down with greens and palm oil into something that tastes a little like boiled chrysanthemum leaves, but with a sharp, nutty bite you'll encounter nowhere else.
Assorted meat is pretty much what it sounds like, various cattle parts simmered in a spicy tomato sauce and served in a big bowl. Sometimes the dish is delicious, folds of tripe softening under the sauce, garlicky chunks of canned corned beef becoming almost palatable with the chile heat; sometimes the meat is heinously overcooked.
It's sort of hard to know what to expect here on a weekend night, when what appears one minute to be a quietly dining couple turns out to host to a party of 12, where waitresses either swarm or seem to vanish into a void, where a stew can be extremely delicious on one visit and inedible the next--a visit to Lagos can feel like being inside a magical realist novel that accepts credit cards.
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WHERE TO GO
Lagos Cafe, 1663 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 246-0973. Open Mon.-Sat., 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mastercard and Visa accepted. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Takeout. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $20-$28.
WHAT TO EAT:
Recommended dishes: moin-moin ; efo riro spinach; egusi stew.