I wasn’t completely sold on Ghenet, Park Slope’s newish Ethiopian restaurant so I wanted to make good on my promise (to myself) to try more regional African food. I headed out to Prospect-Lefferts Gardens (don’t kill me if that’s a bullshit name like Greenwood Heights—I’m still figuring the area out) to explore what edibles Ghana has to offer.
I will freely admit that I’m a novice Ghanaian eater. It’s not like there are “chop bars” on every corner, so I can only take so much blame. I say this because I get annoyed when I read reviews of totally common foodstuffs written as if the item is obscure or exotic (I’ve been trolling the DC/Baltimore Chowhound board in preparation for a mini-trip this weekend and I’m baffled by comments like “what are plantains and jicama?” but these are message board users not necessarily food bloggers.) I was driven insane a few years ago by a blogger, who is now high profile yet no less irksome, who had ordered non-exemplary Vietnamese takeout in a neighborhood so not known for the cuisine, then wrote about all the things they’d never eaten before. Seriously, who has never eaten Vietnamese food?!
One amusing aspect to Meytex Café is that it used to be called Meytex Lounge and was a candidate for the New York Press’s Scary Bar Project. Darkened windows have a way of creating scary ambience, for sure.
I did get a little nervous when I noticed that no one inside seemed to be eating. Only one person was even drinking despite the bar set up in back. There were just a few guys watching boxing on TV, most with bottles of water. It was kind of like you were hanging out in a stranger’s basement.
So, I was open for anything but there wasn’t much on offer. I’d seen menus online so I knew what they potentially had but we were only briefly allowed to hold one before our waitress rattled off what they did have and took them out of our hands. None of the soups or stews that I was interested in were available, nothing meaty, just fried fish, rice and beans, plantains and some vegetably things. I’m not fanatical about rice, beans or plantains, and besides, you can get those anywhere.
I was confused but curious about the many starches I’d seen listed. I imagined banku, kenkey, gari and fufu to all be glutinous masses meant to be eaten with liquidy dishes, and I’m still fairly certain this is true. We were given banku, which was described as “bitter,” which didn’t sound so good and our waitress didn’t seem convinced that we’d even like it but I insisted we would. I knew she meant sour, like sourdough. It’s pounded cornmeal that’s fermented and rolled into a big blob resembling white Play-Doh.
We were brought three balls of banku, and yep, they tasted like a strong sourdough, more like raw elastic dough, not bread. Not unpalatable, but I will say that I don’t really eat sourdough. They were served with egushie, a spinach and pumpkin seed stew that was really good and smoky, though I’m not sure where that flavor came from. There was also simple fried fish, no garnish or sauce, and a small bowl of stewed, tomatoey okra that James insisted contained creamed corn. I’m 99% sure it did not.
They hadn’t turned on the lights even though it has started getting dark so it was hard to see the food. And when I attempted to take photos and only got black shadows, I thought it was from lack of light. It took me a minute to realize that my camera was broken. I’d dropped it the other night and hadn’t noticed that the body had popped open. Bad omen.
I didn’t realize how addicted I’ve become to photographing my food. I only started with pictures in 2006, despite writing about my meals since 2000, and had a terrible time acclimating to taking photos in restaurants because I don’t like drawing attention to myself. At Meytex, I started going through withdrawal and getting cranky. I didn’t want a broken camera to ruin my meal but the damage had already been done (in more ways than one).
We managed to eat a decent amount of our food, but only got through about a quarter of those rib-sticking bankus and half of the egushie, so we took them to go. I figured that I’d eat the leftovers for lunch.
After we got halfway down the block I could hear an “excuse me” that seemed directed at me. “Excuse me” is not a phrase I like to hear walking down the street, but depending on context I’ll turn. “Hey,” I will ignore.
So, I turned to the excuse me lady, who happened to be an MTA worker just getting off a bus.
She asked, “Did you just come out of that restaurant?”
After pondering whether I should say yes or no when clearly she saw that we did I responded, “um, yeah.”
“What’s the food like? I walk past it all the time but have never gone in,” she questioned.
Now that was rich. We stuck out like sore thumbs in the restaurant, we kind of were sticking out like sore thumbs on this block, too, yet she was asking us about Ghanaian food. She was probably thinking how sketchy can a place be if white people are going there.
“It seemed ok,” we both agreed.
I mean, it wasn’t creepy, just kind of like a social club we’d wandered into without being members.
When I got home I felt crazy full, seriously abnormally full. I didn’t even want to think about the glycemic index of banku. I think it had expanded to every corner of my stomach. About 30 minutes into watching a DVRd episode of Hell’s Kitchen, abnormally full turned into gut wrenching pain. That banku wanted out.
And I spent the next few hours heaving up the contents of my stomach, and when not hurling I was sweating and writhing in pain. I started half-believing that a creature was going to rip out of my stomach like in a horror movie—it might’ve been Anansi, himself trying to crawl out. If you think something is sour going down, wait until it comes up. There’s an argument against sourdough. It was about as pleasant as regurgitating tendons in Sichuan chile oil, another tragedy from earlier this year.
The funny thing is that I’ve eaten street food all over Asia and parts of Latin America and have never gotten sick (a salad in a French bistro in Mexico City did cause severe gastrointestinal distress). In recent history, the only poisoning incidents were from dim sum in New Jersey and Chinese egg cakes from a cart in Sunset Park, and I haven’t written Chinese food off. So, I shouldn’t hold a grudge against the cuisine of the entire African continent. I don’t think I will be eating anything from Ghana anytime soon, though.
I’ve seen online experiences that were much more pleasant than mine. Temper my traumatic encounter with theirs:
Bridge and Tunnel Club
Word of Mouth
Eating in Translation
Meytex Café * 543 Flatbush Ave., Brooklyn, NY