University City

Nubian Queens: A taste of West Africa on Eastway Drive

Fusion is all the rage in American eating these days – Charlotte’s popular Maki Taco Asian/Mexican food truck comes to mind – but Nubian Queens takes this tasty idea in novel directions.

Sisters Comfort Kesseh, Korto Kesseh and Cymbaline Kesseh-Banks dish up two distinct cuisines from opposite sides of the planet at Nubian Queens, their new restaurant on Eastway Drive between The Plaza and Tryon.

Their two specialties – American soul food and the traditional African dishes of their native Liberia – share some roots in common. The combination is both delicious and harmonious.

In a way, West African food is to soul food as African drumming is to jazz and the blues.

It is easy to miss Nubian Queens, in spite of the bright new sign. It is located in a nondescript restaurant outbuilding, beside a mall that has seen better days at the corner of Eastway Drive and The Plaza.

Stepping inside takes you straight to the West African coast. It isn’t the décor, which hasn’t changed much from the bar and grill formerly housed here: There are still chrome caddies on the tables, with plastic squeeze bottles of ketchup and mustard (though they have been joined by giant-sized bottles of Texas Pete hot sauce.)

What transports your senses are the sweet and savory scents of West African spices wafting from the kitchen, punctuated by musical laughter. Plus, there’s a continuous parade of regulars from a dozen different African countries coming to pick up a taste of home, and to chat with each other and the Kesseh sisters.

Cymbaline Kesseh-Banks, who handled hostess and wait duties when I visited, knows her stuff. She is happy to explain the various African menu items, with an air of authority.

“We prefer cassava fufu in Liberian cooking, “ she told me. “But actually there are three different kinds: yam, plantain or cassava.”

Fufu, a West African staple, is made by pounding a starchy food, such as cassava tubers, until it reaches a smooth texture with a mild, pleasant taste. It is the perfect foil for Africa’s traditionally spicy sauces. In the U.S., cassava is usually made into tapioca pudding – fufu couldn’t be more different.

The soul food menu features familiar favorites, from hush puppies to okra, with fried chicken and fish. There’s an inviting American-style menu for kids, too, with burgers, fries and mac and cheese. Nubian Queens also has salads and sandwiches, and a selection of wine and beer (including Guinness, which is popular in West Africa). But the restaurant’s Liberian and West African items steal the show.

I ordered attieke with fish. Attieke is also based on cassava, but is fermented and dried, creating a texture like couscous or rice. Everything was delicious; the fish, croaker, was cooked to perfection, flaky and white inside, crispy and savory outside. The accompanying homemade West African pepper sauce, with fresh onion, tomato and cucumbers, served to unify and accent the contrasting flavors and texture of cassava and fish. It was simple and scrumptious.

Fish is featured on Nubian Queens’ menu, reflecting the Kessehs’ Liberian childhood.

“When we were growing up in Monrovia, our parents would stop by the beach on the way home from work and buy fish from the fishermen, right off the boat,” Comfort Kesseh remembers. “We ate fresh fish every day.”

Other Liberian specials on the menu include torborgee, kitily and palava sauce. With a different special each day of the week, you can sample your way through these unfamiliar African treats.

For people new to West African food, Comfort Kesseh suggested trying “potato leaves” (sweet potato leaves) or cassava leaves, which are both very tasty and a bit reminiscent of greens or spinach, though seasoned in a different way than we’re used to.

Soul food and African food share many of the same ingredients, she explained: chicken, okra and greens, for example. The two approaches, however, use different styles of cooking.

“Soul food is a easier to cook than African food,” she said, “but we find the African food is more popular.”

“I like both!” Kesseh-Banks added. She is open to adding African seasonings to soul food, too.

Though meat and fish dominate (including goat stew with rice or fufu), vegetarians are welcome at Nubian Queens.

“There’s a vegetarian who comes here, and we make her pepper soup with vegetables, and prepare it especially for her without meat,” Comfort Kesseh said. “She loves it with fufu!”

The Kesseh sisters came to the U.S. as refugees in the late 1980s and early ’90s, a time of great turbulence in their home country. After establishing professional careers in the U.S. – Comfort Kesseh was a social worker in New York, Kesseh-Banks worked for Sprint – they decided they needed a change, and decided to build on their talent for African cooking. After establishing a successful catering service, they decided to open the restaurant.

Liberia has a special historical relationship with the United States. In the early 1800s, a remarkable New England Quaker and merchant, Paul Cuffee (a transcription of his father’s Ashanti name, Kofi), proposed establishment of a settlement where free black Americans could return to start a new life in Africa.

Cuffee’s vision helped inspire creation of Sierra Leone, an English resettlement project, and Liberia, founded by a number of private American organizations, on the West African coast.

In the 1840s, Liberia declared independence, but its ties to the U.S. remained strong: The Liberian flag is a version of the Stars and Stripes, and the capital, Monrovia, is named for U.S. President James Monroe.

Liberia’s troubled history, past and recent, is anything but a feel-good Hollywood story, but the family relationship between the two nations endures today.

Nothing builds cultural bridges like food. It is hard to think of a friendlier or more delicious way to explore and strengthen the friendship between America and Liberia than a good meal at Nubian Queens.