Excluding Ethiopian, food out of Africa is a rarified thing in San Francisco. Just over that shiny new bridge, however, it's a different story. Between low rents and sunnier days, the East Bay has monopolies on a few essential things. But lately, it's the West African foods that have me sweating out my weekends at the Ashby flea market, venturing into grittier parts of West Oakland, and most recently, dropping into Suya. The African Caribbean grill sits opposite the UC Berkeley campus, but you won't find any bros and burgers here.
"Suya" is the name for the spice-rubbed, skewered meats that appear as everything from street food to upscale fare in West Africa. In Berkeley, that means grilled tilapia on a bed of sliced red onions and pita. Or skewered, jerked chicken hissing on the grill. The concept fuses overlapping culinary traditions from the Caribbean and Africa, which explains the ripe, hot, caramelized plantains and occasional distinctive punch of jerk seasoning. Suya itself is distinguished by a spice blend, call it suya pepper, which finds the meats rubbed in something like ground peanuts, cayenne, paprika, and ginger. The rest is a trade secret, and you'll find it on everything. That means chicken, beef, tilapia, and vegetables.
The restaurant is tiny and simple, seats maybe twelve, and greets you with an open grill and soda fridge. The food itself is remarkably more simple. Order potatoes, and three whole reds get tossed on the grill with only some oil and salt. Order sweet potato chips, and a plain, thinly sliced yam gets sprayed across the hot iron. The menu is divided between skewers and sides, Jamaican patties (like saucy empanadas) with a few specials thrown in -- including peanut butter stew. The tilapia is fresh, the chicken is tender, and everything holds up well to the suya pepper. Try anything with a Chapman -- a mysterious Caribbean punch made from at least cranberry juice and cucumber.
On a strip or pizza joints and chain coffee shops, thrown across from a college campus, it's a nice thing to find simple food done well. And an even nicer thing to find humanity in your dinner transaction. Last time I went, the man behind the grill, Ahmed, lent me his view of cooking. It went something like this: When food is cooked with care and love, that indefinable transferance of that energy is a palpable thing. It gives rise to thoughtful layering. And that, he says, is why everyone things their mother's food is the best.
It's the kind of theory that might sound trite were it not coming in earnest from the man delicately charring your tilapia and potato chips on the open grill. Then, if feels a little more profound. Add to that a little suya aioli, and it makes for a well-rounded night.
Suya, 2130 Oxford, Berkeley. (510) 981-8028