Best of Benin: Alafia

Alafia serves a taste of the West African coast with tantilizing barbecue and aromatic spices

About eight months ago, a restaurant quietly took over the former outpost of the original CeeDee Jamaican Kitchen on Swan Road just south of Speedway Boulevard. While the CeeDee owners initially intended to keep both locations open, they eventually just traded up for a higher-capacity dining room. What they left behind is the ideal starter space—a 20-seat diner-style restaurant with a grill and countertop seating. It's nothing fancy, but it's difficult to look at the space and not impose your own dreams on the location.

However, one man from Benin (a small coastal country nestled between Togo and Nigeria that's between the size of Maine and Illinois) realized his dream by opening Alafia West African Cuisine. Most nights, it's just him on the line, at the register and checking in on tables, though he said his nephew also helps on occasion. While the amount of work that goes into meticulously grilling and cooking all of the menu's 10-plus dishes on his own, while explaining half of the menu to three-quarters of his customers, while also delivering drinks and cashing people out, seems undoubtedly daunting, he handles it with a level of calm and undeniable charm that makes you want to try one of everything—he's a salesman as much as he is a chef and there's no doubt about it. His deep belly laughs put you at ease immediately.

Diners can start with a bottle of soda from the fridge at Alafia, but that would be a pretty big mistake. Instead, ask for the bissap (Jamaica-like Hibiscus drink, $3) or the ginger juice ($3). The latter quickly became a favorite with its intensely spicy, fresh-ginger flavor, rounded out with a bit of sugar and a little lime juice. It almost feels like something you'd sip during a cleanse, with just enough sweetness to keep most palates in the game.

Once you're juiced up, it's a better time than any to begin navigating the menu. While Benin is, on paper, a French-speaking country, France has seemingly invaded Beninese cuisine way less than it has the language. Instead, you'll find well-executed grilled meats—simple and straightforward, fluffy couscous and fufu and soups and sauces enhanced by spice blends that will keep you guessing. You can try to ask Alafia's owner just what those blends are, but he'll likely just smile and say something like "they're African spices"—I see what he's doing for sure, and I'm not mad at it. I wouldn't want people trying to steal my spice blends if they were that good either.

Formulating a dining plan of attack, I'd recommend tackling the dishes with a friend or two, family style. Before getting to the main event, which will likely either be grilled tilapia or grilled chicken, start on the menu's front side. There you'll find sauce d'arachide (peanut sauce), okra sauce, ground egusi seed soup, red kedjenou sauce with chicken, goat soup and more. There are also couscous (attiéké) and rice (tchep djen) dishes as well.

The sauce d'arachide ($9.99) is a comforting, homey dish that is more similar in style to a Mexican mole than it is a South East Asian satay. It's not sweet or bright, but rather savory and spiced with a choice of chicken, goat or lamb.

If you're looking for a really explosive flavor experience, the okra sauce ($9.99) is another good place to begin. Be warned, though, that this okra isn't prepared to suit American sensibilities, and, admittedly, it's downright slimy. Rather than trying to quickly fry up the okra so it doesn't hold that texture that tends to creep people out (it really isn't that bad, but anyone who's served knows that people have their dining no-go's, and this is a pretty common one), the okra is stewed into a gelatinous paste that's soaked up every flavor note added in the process. You're left with a dip for fufu (a doughy, soft potato-based bread) or a sauce to top on rice or couscous.

While each dish at Alafia offered something unique and worth a taste, the goat soup ($9.99) is one thing you absolutely have to order when you stop in. The tender bone-in chunks of goat meat sit and simmer in a broth that's aromatic, sure, but also intriguingly sweet—not much mind you, but just enough to keep you curious. They say voodoo's progenitor, vodun, was born in Benin, and this soup might be the proof.

Once you've had your fill of soups and sauces, the menu's back page waits with enticing African barbecue. A whole tilapia ($14.99), half of a chicken ($12.99) and chachanga (goat and lamb, MP around $12) are served with lightly caramelized, crispy on the outside plantains and a bright, vinegary tomato and cucumber salad. The tilapia is almost absurdly moist and tender, albeit still holding that slight earthy or muddy flavor some don't like (I kind of enjoy it), and will have you digging around the fish for every last bit of meat and sucking bones clean. The chicken, on the other hand, is spice rubbed and left to grill until it gets a crispy, charred skin. The moist goat and lamb, when in stock, at Alafia is among the best I've had in town of this vastly underrated protein. The common thread tying the restaurant's entire barbecue selection is this: uncomplicated, well-executed meats off of a well-seasoned grill that let the star of the show stay at center stage.

What you'll find overall at Alafia, aside from the fantastic, friendly service, is a cuisine that's kind of similar to Caribbean and kind of like Middle Eastern and sort of like a couple other things too if you're still searching for a frame of reference. Really, though, if you don't have experience with West African cuisine (or if you do, and you want to have some cooked really well), you should definitely just go on a few visits with a couple friends and make your way through the small menu. If you're anything like me, Alafia will likely shoot straight to the top of your dining roster.

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