Measured in terms of both land area and population, Africa is the world’s second largest continent, surpassed only by Asia in both respects. That size is seldom reflected accurately in world maps, school curricula, political influence, and even the American restaurant landscape. To be sure, centuries of slavery brought about enormous changes in eating habits, many of which are still reflected in regional cuisines throughout the United States. Nevertheless, authentic food as it is eaten in Africa remains under-represented in most of the country.
With recent immigration adding to the existing diaspora in America, the culinary traditions of the continent are gradually becoming more prominent. In Phoenix, one harbinger is West Hust, a restaurant that specializes in the food of west Africa, particularly Ghana and Nigeria. West Hut is located at the former site of Park Central Mall, which has recently been revitalized as a hub for health care and education with a row of restaurants as its remaining retail. The address is halfway between the Thomas/Central and Osborn/Central light rail stations in Midtown Phoenix.
Bike racks are found throughout Park Central, but most of them are hidden. The most obvious one is outside a nearby Jimmy John’s sandwich franchise. Customers who arrive on bikes should be cautious about using the racks at the nearby Creighton University building. Campus security staff are sometimes protective of them, reserving the racks for student use only. A prominent “West Hut” sign differentiates the restaurant from its neighbors serving Thai food and tacos, and a shaded, expansive front patio leads to the restaurant’s entrance and host stand.
The restaurant’s interior is simple but welcoming with wooden tables and concrete floors. The walls are decorated with slogans in African English with one sign in particular advising “no wahala (worry).” Music on the speakers reflects not only contemporary African artists like KiDi. but also Jamaican dancehall veterans such as Sister Nancy. At the back of the room, there is a small bar named Kilimanjaro,and a few screens display sports or entertainment. Some thatched wood in the corners is a nod to the concept of a hut, but the space is modern and comfortable.
West Hut’s menu consists of an all-day section and a selection of half a dozen lunch specials, most of which reflect reconfigured versions of the slightly more expensive entrees on the main menu. The starters include plantains seasoned with peanuts, fried balls of dough (also with peanuts), and beef patties full of finely minced meat in a crisp pastry shell. A bowl of goat pepper soup, a traditional west African favorite, is also available as an appetizer. Its suitably spicy broth is full of cuts of goat meat served on the bone. A larger bowl is offered as an entree.
When the soup is the main course, it comes with a side of jasmine rice or fufu, a mash made of yams. Jollof rice, a traditional west African dish in which seasonings and cooking techniques can reflect nuanced variations from one country to another, is available with the restaurant’s namesake dish, the West Hut. The eponymous stew incorporates abundant tomato and ginger, as well as a customer’s choice of beef, chicken, or goat for a small additional charge. Waakye rice is slightly different with an emphasis on black eyed peas that accompany the grain.
While these rice dishes are provided as side dishes on the main menu, they move to center stage among the lunch specials. That makes sense because jollof rice and its variants are often seen as foundational foods and cultural touchstones among the nations of west Africa. Served with a portion of chicken or beef, they offer a more economical meal and a way to emphasize the grains, legumes, and sauces involved. Jollof rice and waakye rice are joined here by Red Red, which forgoes rice in favor of stewed legumes that are reminiscent of baked beans.
Other entrees focus on specific vegetables. Okra Go Follow and I Love Spinach both emphasize the core ingredients in their names via flavorful stews while Groundnut Delight is a slightly spicy peanut soup. Often these dishes are accompanied by garnishes and condiments. Some are as simple as avocado while others are more complex. Gari, grated cassava that looks sort of like parmesan cheese, adds some crunch, and ata sauce made with shrimp and chilies gives the sort of umami boost associated with fish sauce in southeast Asian cuisine.
Additional menu choices include a grilled fish served whole and yam fries with chicken or beef. A small children’s menu offers the possibility of a smaller serving of Jollof rice with either meet. There is no dessert on the menu; however, the house-made sobolo drink has a tangy, tart, and herbal flavor from hibiscus, lemon, and mint balanced with some sweetness. It’s similar to a Mexican jamaica but not quite as sugary. Bottled non-alcoholic drinks include Malta Goya, a drink of hops and barley, and Island Kola Champagne, a type of cream soda of Jamaican origin.
West Hut serves a limited selection of wine and popular bottled beers. Imported brews from Africa are also poured subject to availability. The Kilimanjaro Bar serves its own Kilimanjaro Mule made with vodka, lime, sobolo, and ginger beer. Africa, already large in both people and area, continues to grow. The United Nations has recently predicted that Nigeria’s population will be greater than that of the United States by 2050 and may even surpass China’s by 2100. If those trends hold, expect a lot more jollof rice, whether in west Africa or West Hut in Phoenix.
3110 N. Central Ave. #D-183, Phoenix AZ 85012