Akwaaba is not a take-out restaurant. Well, you definitely can get anything on the menu to go, and they will happily take your to-go order, but to really enjoy Akwaaba, dining in is the way to go. Sibling owners Mohammed and Naima Ahamed named this African cuisine spot Akwaaba because the word literally means "welcome" in Akan, a language spoken in their native Ghana. Dining here is meant to be a community event where everyone is welcome. The grills and fryers are situated so that you can watch them prepare your food while you wait if you so choose. Both Mohammed and Naima love to cook and have been cooking all their lives. They take time and care with all food orders so that they meet their high standards, and it shows. Mohammed is always sharply dressed when he cooks. I'm not sure if that is part of the charm of the restaurant, but I do envy his wardrobe.
Akwaaba opened in September 2018 in the College Town area of Mount Hope Avenue, in what used to be an India House Express before that restaurant moved to the building next door. It's a small place, but there's a good amount of seating. Often you end up conversing with other customers, which is partially the intention. The last time I visited, an elderly woman was regaling a pair of college students sitting adjacent to her at another table. They were so riveted by her words that I thought they already knew each other, but they'd only met a few minutes prior to my arrival. Eventually, they were all at the same table, still sharing stories.
The food is well worth the time it takes to make it, and all portions are big enough to share. My favorite is the Somali samosas ($4), sometimes called sambusas. Similar to the Indian samosas, this appetizer is a set of six lightly-fried, thin dough tetrahedrons stuffed with vegetables, beef, or chicken. Instead of a choice of chutney, Somali samosas are served with a dipping sauce of stewed tomato, pepper, and onion. I could eat these all day, but then I would miss out on the fried plantains ($4.50) or the fried chicken ($8) appetizers.
- PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
- Clockwise, from bottom left: Aboboi and rice with fried plantains, jollof rice with chicken, bofrot (puff puff), and samosas at Akwaaba Restaurant.
Plantains are always hearty and sweet, so I can satisfy my sweet tooth and not feel like I am consuming empty calories. When the fried chicken came out, I thought we had mistakenly made a double order. Four huge chicken drumsticks, nearly the size of turkey legs, were topped with the same tomato pepper onion sauce that came with the samosas. This is an appetizer made for sharing, and I was glad I came with a large party. It seems that all of the appetizers are made for more than one person, or perhaps the environment got me into the spirit of sharing my food as much as we were swapping stories.
The appetizers come in abundant portions, and the main dishes even moreso. My first choice was the ampesi with fried fish ($14). Ampesi is boiled yams (or plantain) served with a spinach stew. The digital picture of this meal displayed above the cash register does not do it justice: I expected a medium-sized filet with some spinach and plantains, but I was presented with a slab of boneless fish on top of a wealth of savory-seasoned spinach and sweet yams.
The second entrée I ordered was the aboboi with plantains ($9). As large a dish as the ampesi, this is a vegetarian black-eyed bean stew with fried plantains on the side. The most popular meal at my table was the jollof rice with chicken ($12). Jollof is rice cooked in the aforementioned tomato-pepper-onion medley, and the chicken is also cooked in the same mix. The dish is simultaneously sweet and savory, and the rice has a light red hue from being infused with the vegetables and oil. And it took a lot of willpower to not lick the plate clean.
- PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
- Bofrot (puff puff) is a sweet pastry on the menu at Akwaaba.
One warning: if Mohammed or Naima advise you that a soup is spicy, take them at their word. The pepper soup ($5) is delicious, but I foolishly thought that I could handle a heaping spoonful of it. The good news is I have a new go-to meal to consume when I feel a bit congested.
There is something to be said about going to a restaurant where you don't feel rushed, where they are not trying to get you out the door as quickly as you sat down, where you can take your time and relax and chat with your fellow patrons while enjoying a bounty of food made with care. I enjoyed the food there as much as I enjoyed my conversations with Mohammed and other guests. Akwaaba is a welcome respite from the world outside.