By: Erin Pesut
When you walk into Taste of West Africa, you can smell it in the air: garlic, ginger, anise, the warm aroma of onions, tomatoes and curry, but there is another spice, too. Something hotter. Smokier. A spice I’ve never smelled before.
When I ask her to name that elusive spice I can’t quite name, Isabella Effon, owner and operator of Taste of West Africa, says, “To be honest with you I don’t have any English for the name of it.”
That’s how authentic Taste of West Africa is.
Taste of West Africa is a full service casual restaurant on Person Street downtown, open Tuesday through Saturday from 11am-8pm, just past the Market House. Maybe you walked by the straw umbrellas. Looked in the windows. Read the menu. Maybe you wondered just how you could convince your wife, your husband, your friends to try egusi soup or ox-tail or sawawa or jollof, but inside, Taste of West Africa is a family-run restaurant, and they’re just waiting for you to open their door and say hello.
Taste of West Africa has been open since November of 2012. It is owned and operated by Isabella, but she has plenty of help from her family. Her mother, Bridget Benton, rules the kitchen. When you walk in, Bridget is behind the counter, cooking at the stove. Steam rises from her hot pots as she checks the meats, the vegetables and stirs the rice. Anane Cledoe, Isabella’s brother, who arrived from Ghana in 2009, helps with waiting tables.
“When we realized this was going to be a family business, we said we will need all the help that we can.”
Isabella appreciates her family.
“There’s nothing like having family around you, helping. I wish I could have everybody. Part of them are still back in Ghana. We are scattered all over, but it’s fulfilling.”
In 2001, Isabella and Tetteh, her husband, moved from Chicago to Fayetteville, making Fort Bragg their First Duty Station.
“It was some time in April,” Isabella remembers, “and Chicago was cold, and here it was so beautiful and I said, ‘Wow, now I am not going back to any big city.’”
Isabella herself hails from Ghana, the country she refers to as her “home-home,” a nation on Africa’s Gulf of Guinea. She came to the United States in 1997.
Isabella never had any ideas to open a restaurant. Back in Ghana, she curated art for the Golden Tulip Hotel, featuring art from students at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST).
“Abstract, acrylic, you name it, watercolor, everything.”
While living in Chicago, she worked at the DuSable Museum of African American History, which earned Smithsonian Affiliation status earlier this year, and the Chicago Academy of Sciences Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.
“I appreciate art and I appreciate nature. I’m not an actress or anything, but there’s something about it. Just because you can’t do it doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate it. We have to appreciate one another.”
Art followed her everywhere. Isabella met Tetteh in Chicago, after the two were introduced through a friend of their pastor. Later, they married and moved to Fayetteville.
The move wasn’t difficult for Isabella, partly due to the milder weather but she also began to find her community. She volunteered with Umoja Group, a Fayetteville-based non-profit that works to promote education, culture and the positive history of Africans, African Americans and Caribbeans. With their help, she curated international exhibits of art at Fayetteville State University.
Again, there was never any plan to open a restaurant, but the seed for one germinated while Isabella represented Ghana for the Umoja Group during The Art Council’s International Folk Festival at Festival Park.
On the Saturday of the event, Isabella’s group served traditional food from West Africa. On Sunday, they performed traditional dances on stage, but after the show, people came to find her, seeking her food.
“No food today,” she said. “We’re on stage today.”
But they persisted.
“Where’s the food?” they asked. “Where’s the restaurant?”
The walls of Taste of West Africa are an art museum themselves. In older images of the restaurant featured on Trip Advisor—the travel website from which Taste of West Africa has won multiple Certificates of Excellence—different art adorns the walls. Most recently, when I went in, there were painted tribal masks, zebras, giraffes, wooden statuettes and a detailed acrylic painting of African nomads. Isabella wants to showcase all aspects of African heritage and culture.
“We try to represent not only Ghana, but East Africa, South Africa, West Africa, Kenya, too, the whole continent.”
Isabella grew up both eating and serving the food that Taste of West Africa makes. When she was a girl, she helped her mother sell food just like it to the community.
“It wasn’t a typical restaurant, more like a road-side place, but we make the same things here.”
And of all the food they make, Isabella likes okra soup best.
“It’s what we grew up on. We planted our own okra, our own vegetables, everything. There’s something about it, even my children love okra.”
Isabella’s children, Deborah, 13, and Lordia, 6, both students at St. Ann’s Catholic School, also help at the restaurant. When she can, Deborah takes orders or works the cash register. Lordia, from what I understand, spreads the word.
“Anywhere we go,” Isabella told me, laughing, “she invites them to Taste of West Africa, and she tells them ‘You have to try the empanada—spinach and beef—and you have to try the navy bean pie.’”
While Isabella and Bridget are busy in the kitchen or greeting tables, Deborah and Lordia sometimes sit and do homework in the back.
“Yes, we do homework in the back there. The little one, she wants to be a zoologist. She knows about every animal, specifically animals in Africa,” Isabella said, proudly.
Isabella said Deborah is more into the science and math and wants to become a pediatrician.
“So of course,” Isabella says, “they’re saying, ‘You’re coming with me, Grandma, because you have to cook for me.’”
As for her own family, of course they eat at Taste of West Africa, but Isabella says her family enjoys going out to eat on Sundays after church and trying other restaurants. They especially like Sherefe or getting take-out from Circa.
“We love to try other foods. We love food. We’re foodies.”
On the front page of Taste of West Africa’s menu it reads: Made with Love and Cooked from the Heart. Their food is fresh, local and homemade; it’s authentic. But, even better, a wide variety of tastes and palates can be accommodated here. Gluten-free. Dairy free. Kid-friendly. Low-carb. High-fiber. Vegetarian. Vegan. Halal-friendly. The list goes on and on.
“Most of our recipes don’t call for dairy or gluten, so there is no wheat product. Rice, beans, nothing in that has gluten,” Isabella notes.
Plus, every single order is made fresh. When you order, they start cooking.
“We cook all our soups on order. So when you ask for soup, we don’t use broth, we don’t use anything like that, we cook everything in house. We cook your vegetables, and we cook it fresh.”
For some dishes, like the Vivinator Guinea, a fresh free-range Guinea fowl marinated in spices, or any of their other “Indigenous Entrees,” the menu reads, “Please, call ahead or allow at least thirty minutes, thanks.”
While you wait, you can sip their most popular beer, a lighter East African beer from Kenya, the Tusker. You can try an empanadas, or sawawa, their house apricot-cinnamon butter sauce served with crispy pie chips, peanut butter soup, or even kelewele, their sweet and spiced plantains. There is no shortage of flavor or tastes. You could even eat dessert first, and I would suggest a piece of their mango-guava cheesecake. When you are eating that, you won’t mind waiting one bit.
On Google, Taste of West Africa has a rating of 4.8 out of 5. On Trip Advisor, Taste of West Africa is rated number 5 out of 419 restaurants in Fayetteville.
“We are fortunate to have social media, Yelp, Google, Trip Advisor and Facebook,” Isabella says, nodding when I mention their high ratings. And while food alone can inspire a patron to write a positive review for a restaurant, Taste of West Africa’s success is in their winning combination of food, ambiance, and the friendly nature of everyone behind the counter. Framed above their cash register is also their perfect sanitation score: 100.
If you are still skeptical of trying ox-tail soup, Isabella has something she’d like you to hear.
“I want people to know that just as they would go and eat Chinese or any other ethnic food, they should feel comfortable to walk in and try what we have. Sometimes that’s the fear. Fear of the unknown. They walk in and you see fear in their face. And of course, yes, so you have to talk to them, bring something for them to taste. A little meat here—it’s human nature—we bring them some rice.”
“You do not have to be afraid,” she said. “You can always enjoy the food just like anybody else.”
On July 16, Taste of West Africa will be holding their second annual African World Peace Festival downtown on Person Street. There will be a 5K run, health screenings for the community, and the sharing of education, diversity and culture.
Taste of West Africa is open Tuesday through Saturday. They do not deliver, but they do cater.