African grilled tilapia at Alafia West African Cuisine (Credit: Taylor Noel Photography)
Alafia West African Cuisine, located at 1070 N. Swan Rd., brings a little corner of West Africa to the heart of Tucson.
The restaurant, which sits in an unassuming strip mall just south of Speedway offers a range of dishes from from rich peanut stews to tangy yogurt desserts in a casual and friendly atmosphere.
West African music pours out of the speakers, while carved art and murals decorate the mint-green walls.
Customers and friends drift in as Ismael Lawani, Alafia’s gregarious owner, chef, and waiter, chat with them in English and French, the official language of his native country, Benin.
“A great introduction to the flavorful and too-often overlooked cuisines of West Africa.”
The meal started with a complimentary plate of plantain chips and a glass of ginger juice ($3), a refreshing, spicy drink with a pleasant froth. Alafia’s beverage menu also includes bissap ($3), a hibiscus tea similar to agua de jamaica, as well as soda and bottled water.
Main dishes include African barbecued tilapia ($14.99), chicken ($12.99), goat and lamb ($12) along with an array of soups and sauces with rice.
Alafia’s recipes come from all across West Africa. Egusi ($9.99), a soup of palm oil, fish, and greens, is popular in Nigeria. Attieke ($11.99), a cassava couscous, originates in Côte d’Ivoire. Vegetarian versions of the Egusi and Attieke are available, and, from 11 a.m. until 3 pm, customers can order the $5.99 lunch special, which consists of a rotating entree of the day.
The barbecued tilapia, grilled artfully within view of the dining room, is topped with stewed tomatoes and onions, and served with a choice of fried plantains or salad. The tilapia’s crisp skin and moist flesh is a delicious study in contrasts, and the meat falls easily off the bone. Lawani mentioned that some customers prefer their tilapia with the head removed, and he can do this upon request, although the diners in question appeared to enjoy digging into the entire fish. The fried plantains, called aloko in Benin, are thickly-cut and deeply caramelized.
Sauce d’arachide ($9.99), a peanut sauce popular in Senegal and Mali, is served with rice and a choice of goat, lamb, or chicken. The thick and slightly-sweet sauce complements the meat, while the rice provides a satisfying carbohydrate foil to the protein-rich dish.
The goat soup ($9.99), Lawani’s pride and joy and a Beninese favorite, takes hours to prepare. The fragrant broth includes over twenty spices with tender goat meat.
Ingredients such as peanuts and okra (okra sauce, $9.99), which are frequently associated with the Deep South, came to the United States by way of Africa, and the menu gestures at the influence West African cuisine has had on US foodways.
For dessert, diners can choose from beignets ($1), a West African take on French fried dough, and degue yogurt ($5). Degue, a thick and slightly-sweet mix of yogurt, millet, and spices, is the perfect end to a hearty meal at Alafia.
For some, Lawani’s cooking offers a taste of home. For others, it’s a great introduction to the flavorful and too-often overlooked cuisines of West Africa.
Alafia West African Cuisine is located at 1070 N, Swan Rd, just south of Speedway. For more information, visit alafiawestafricancuisine.com.