When Concourse Village Senegalese restaurant Maryway shuttered some months back, I lost my favorite mafe—a peanut stew— in the Bronx. Rich and savory without being overwhelmingly peanut buttery, Maryway's was one of my favorites in the five boroughs, and, come to think of it, the only one in the Bronx worth seeking out. I've been hunting for a worthy heir ever since, and after months of vain pursuit, I've found one at Williamsbridge's Saloum.
Like most West African restaurants in the city, Saloum offers just a few steam table items from a more comprehensively standard lunch menu. You might find ceebu jen ($9, jollof rice with fish stewed in tomato sauce), super kanja ($8, okra and palm oil sauce with beef and fish), or boyong ($10, cow's foot soup). The prices here, you'll notice, are all a few dollars lower than the standard at West African restaurants.
Come dinner, their menu goes veers toward meat-centric preparations of lamb and fowl, like mishiou ($13, stuffed lamb leg) and the illusive chawarma ($6), which we've only seen otherwise on the menu at Melrose's wonderful Bate. Chawarma is exactly you think: shawarma, imported by way of North Africa, which explains the inclusion of french fries. You can track the spread of Islam from the Arab World to the Ivory Coast, all in one sandwich. We're looking forward to trying more of these dishes next time around. For now, back to the mafe.
While mafe is, here in New York, typically associated with the Senegalese who first introduced the dish to the city, it is of Malian, or more specifically Mandika, origin. (For that matter, mafe is a Wolof word.*) But the dish spread across the region with the cultivation of peanuts, brought by French colonialists, and Pierre Thiam writes that mafe is now claimed by the whole of West Africa.
*The Wolof are an ethnic group who live in various West African countries, as are the Mandika.
Here at Saloum, the mafe smells curiously of penne alla vodka. No need for duress, though: it's just the tomato paste. The flavor is spot on. Saloum's is not the gloppy, one-note, too-heavy-on-peanut butter-and-extra-light-on-everything-else mafe you may have encountered in Harlem.
You'll be spooning the sauce over rice, too busy relishing the just slightly sweet, comfortingly rich, and seductively earthy flavor to notice the sneaky heat as it creeps up on you. Then, as if out of nowhere, you'll notice your nose dripping. The heat is never blistering, just a faint, mellow hum of capsaicin. The shredded beef is more or less anonymous, as is so often the case in the soups and stews of West African restaurants. While we'd like a more flavorful protein, it's something we can live with, however begrudgingly, when the sauce tastes this good.
About the author: Chris Crowley is the author of the Bronx Eats and Anatomy of A Smorgasburg Pop Up columns. Follow him on Twitter, if you'd like. In person, your best bet is the window seat at Neerob, or waiting in line at the Lechonera La Piranha trailer.