Senegal on 79th

Yassa’s African Restaurant was easy to find, just west of the intersection of 79th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue. Its unassuming exterior matched the rest of the gritty block–simple yet bright signage above the entrance, dark brick exterior, and a row of open parking meters lining the front. Knowing little about Senegal, a few stereotypical questions filled my mind. Would we eat with our fingers, like in an Ethiopian restaurant? Would we sit on the floor? Would the décor have elephants or lions? Entering the restaurant was like walking into someone’s back door. We were eagerly welcomed by the owner, a member of the Wolof people of western Senegal, who opened the place in 2004 as the first Senegalese restaurant in Chicago. The dining room was open yet dimly lit, and a family sat around the largest table. The seating was informal, around oversized square tables that were subtly oriented toward a big TV buzzing the latest political commentary on CNN. Everyone who came and sat down was eventually drawn in by the political banter, which harmonized with the drone of the lights and coolers.

The menu offered a wide array of traditional dishes, from marinated lamb chops to curries and stews boasting a variety of meats and fish. The division of dishes between lunch and dinner seemed purely aesthetic, as the owner allowed us to order any dish on the menu. The intensity of flavor, present in the background scents wafting from the kitchen, started with the hand-blended sorrel juice. This leafy plant made a deep red liquid tasting slightly of lemon and berry that matched the spices in the dishes. First came the nem, a slightly sweet appetizer not unlike an egg roll filled with Senegalese spices. Next were the main courses: Yassa lamb and Thiou curry with lamb. The huge portions rested on equally large beds of rice, and both dishes were tender to the point of melting. Each had its particular spicing–the Yassa lamb was marinated in sweet yet savory spices that started with a buttery warmth and tangy tomato and onion, moved into the sharp prick of spiciness and finally softened into a lemony aftertaste. Served bone-in, the Thiou curry had an equally intricate spicing. It was paired with sweet potatoes, carrots and peas that echoed the edge of the curry with just enough sweetness to round out the flavor. The kick of the sorrel juice cleansed the palate perfectly, and each bite was newly complex.

Near the end of the meal, the owner returned to tempt us with sumptuous desserts, but the lamb had dominated the feast. While we waited for the check and started to digest, the surrounding pastiche of authentic tribal statuary, bright swatches of African fabric, and posters of 1940s South Chicago moved to the foreground, which made for an atmosphere as engaging as the dazzling flavors of the food.