West African Delights
Talking Drums has got your goat
There is a zen attitude required when dining out with small children.
No, wait, that can’t be the right word. “Zen” implies peace and contentment in the face of adversity, perhaps even stillness and quietude. But dining out with children requires something else, like zen, perhaps, but without any hope of spiritual fulfillment. And forget the stillness and quietude, too. Instead of inner calm and peace, the goal of your detachment is simply to remain sane until the end of the meal.
This defined my first experience at Talking Drums African Restaurant. My wife and I ordered $80 worth of West African delights and eagerly looked forward to the culinary exploration. But then my 4-year-old son decided to spill his juice over the table. And my 18-month-old daughter decided that she was not, was absolutely not, not not NOT going to sit in her chair.
Fortunately, we were the only people in the restaurant, and the staff was patient and willing to show that even though we had brought squirming invaders to besiege their restaurant, they did not hold it against us. They wanted us to enjoy our food and to be happy.
But there comes a point when a force of nature becomes too much to contain. The levee bursts, the fault line ruptures, the 18-month-old begins to scream and scream. Evacuation is mandatory. “Fuck it,” I muttered to my wife, and we abandoned ship.
Now, let me take a moment and proclaim the great patience of Talking Drums’ owner and the good people who work there. Let me cast a paean to their superhuman resolve to provide excellent service. Let me say that they are deserving of a thousand songs of praise. Because, you see, they did not lock the doors and turn off the lights the next time my wife and I pulled into their parking lot. The owner himself smiled broadly (without a hint of a grimace) and welcomed us back.
Of course, that could be because we had left the kids at home this time.
Now child-free, we had the peace to take in our surroundings. Talking Drums occupies the space formerly held by a series of Chinese restaurants, and the building itself reflects that with its tiled, peaked roof. A string of painted beads between the dining area and the restrooms depicts an Asian river scene. But wooden African bowls decorate every table, and the spices that waft from the kitchen are those of the mother continent.
Now, let me take a moment and proclaim the great patience of Talking Drums’ owner and the good people who work there. Let me cast a paean to their superhuman resolve to provide excellent service. Let me say that they are deserving of a thousand songs of praise. Because, you see, they did not lock the doors and turn off the lights the next time my wife and I pulled into their parking lot.
The menu itself is chock-full of intriguing items with names like “puff-puff” and “fufu.” Never fear, the owner (Alex, friendly and always smiling) is on hand and eager to tell you about each one.
We began with appetizers. Beef suya ($5.99) was strips of seasoned beef, dry-rubbed and lilting on the tongue. Spicy, yes, savory and soon gone. I also ordered some peppered gizzards ($4.99), an item I’d never had before. The spicing on the gizzards was enough to keep me popping them in my mouth despite their unfamiliar, slightly rubbery texture. I’m not sure I’d get them again just because of how much chewing they required, but if you’re in the market for gizzards, this is your place. The menu also offers puff-puff, which is a slightly sweet fried dough, a distant cousin of the sopaipilla perhaps, and moin moin, a flan sized wafer of black bean puree.
Although more exotic options like cow’s feet and ox tail caught my eye, I decided to try the less adventurous combo platter #2 ($12.99), which comes with goat meat, fried plantains and spiced beans (combo platter #1 offers fried fish and moin moin). Despite not having any idea of what it was (even after the owner had tried to explain it to us), my wife took a gamble on the fufu platter ($11.99).
The combo platter #2: Oh my god, this goat. This goat is the best goat. I’ve never eaten goat before, not out of any anti-goat bias, but just because it doesn’t typically appear on the plates off of which I’m eating. So, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Now, let me say, unequivocally: I love goat. Or at least this goat. Melt in your mouth tender morsels of bone-in meat, sweet and delicious with no trace of gamey flavor. I want to eat goat all the time now. And the combo itself was culinary harmony, with both the spicy beans (with a cayenne kick) and sticky, sweet fried plantains making for excellent goat-chasers.
My wife’s fufu was an entirely different sort of dish. Doughy dumplings made from various starches (including yam, plantain and semolina), fufu resembles an uncooked boule of farmer’s bread. And, indeed, its texture is similar. This is a hands-on food: The diner pulls off a small lump, rolls it into a ball and then dips it into one of several soupy sauces before popping it into the mouth. At Talking Drums, you get your choice of three sauces. We tried a fiery peanut soup, one called “bitter leaves” and an ewedu stew. Each imparted a distinctly different flavor (spicy, sweet or bitter), and it was fun to dip the fufu into each or try different combinations. Fortunately a finger bowl was also on hand to rinse between fufu bites.
We finished up with African custard ($5). Subtly sweet, extremely creamy corn pudding with whipped cream, it was a simple and refreshing end to the meal. And after our first experience there, having to evacuate the restaurant at the behest of semi-verbal tyrants, it felt like an absolute triumph to linger at our table with a full, satisfied belly and not leave until we were good and ready.
When we finally did so, Alex told us of his upcoming plans to have African music and dancing at Talking Drums sometime in May. There’s no question that I’ll be returning for that. There’s a significant portion of a continent to explore on Talking Drums’ menu, and I intend to take the opportunity to do so.
Anybody want to babysit?
1218 San Pedro SE
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday - Saturday
Price range: $9.99-$15.99 for entrees
Oddities: Cow’s feet, ox tails, and snails
Vegetarian and gluten free: Yes.
Extras: Friendly chatting with the owner, live music, African/Caribbean market
Alibi recommends: Fufu platter, combo #2, beef suya and GOAT