Being a Mystery Diner, I am always glad to see new restaurants opening up. What gladdens me even more is when they offer a cuisine that’s new to my palate.
Before reviewing a “New Open,” I usually stop by a few days ahead of time, scouting the field of the latest dine-around bunch gastronomic foray. As a rule, I visit several times, just making sure that (1) my companions know what to expect once we all get there, (2) that the place does in fact serve food, and (3) the food they serve is at least edible.
My latest bit of recon work resulted from a reader telling me about N&K Variety Foods Plus, a neighborhood grocery over on East Unaka Avenue in Johnson City.
N&K is run by Nyempu and Adolphus Hall, two of the happiest and hardest-working people I know. Theirs is an old-school family-style grocery brought forward into the 21st century, where potato chips and soda pop share shelf space with lottery tickets and energy drinks. They also stock some frankly intriguing African comestibles like Liberian brown rice (in hundred pound sacks), sugared plantain chips and African honey beans.
The real find here is up the red-and-white steps at the back of the store where Nyempu holds court in her cozy diner. Having lunch with Nyempu and Co. is a place where you really can rub shoulders with your fellow diners. There is a booth by the window that holds five patrons, (six in a pinch) and just three stools at the lunch counter up front. (Don’t worry, they’ve got several tables on the sidewalk out front to handle the overflow.) Though the kitchen is barely big enough to swing a spatula in, that is room enough for Nyempu to work her culinary magic.
N&K has all manner of American lunch counter-style cuisine; the large hot dog ($3) is excellent, as is the old-timey grocery store-style thick-cut bologna sandwich ($3). They also do an excellent and remarkably affordable number of delicious breakfast items.
I am here to tell you, however, if you stop by N&K and do not order something off their Liberian menu, you will be missing out on a real treat. Nyempu does Liberian-style platters, each priced uniformly at $9.99. What’s on the platters can change daily, even hourly depending upon how many customers show up.
With our other dine-around members otherwise occupied, my dining partner and I visited Nyempu and Adolphus for an early evening supper. Walking through N&K’s front door and up the steps was an olfactory experience, as we passed by lots of bagged, jarred and canned items all glinting mysteriously in the early evening twilight.
After we took our seats, a smiling Nyempu asked what we were having for supper. We decided to do the $9.99 platters, so I chose the Liberian Rice with Chicken. Upon enthusiastic recommendation from Adolphus, my partner ordered the Wings, and Nyempu made them a combo platter by adding rice and fried plantains.
This, my first encounter with Liberian cuisine, had me feverishly thumbing though my thesaurus looking for adjectives to do it justice. My partner’s platter had eight meaty wings baked, not boiled or deep-fried. Their spiciness was from a light sprinkling of red pepper flakes and other spices, all imparting a nice medium heat, admirably cooled by the sweetness of the fried plantain and the rice’s nutty starchiness.
For my meal, Nyempu slow-simmered a real stewing chicken, (not a supermarket oven-stuffer) in her special gravy, a mixture of vegetables, stock, spices and skill, then plated it with the Liberian rice and plantains. What she placed in front of me should be in every cookbook and Internet entry, under the title “How to Do Chicken the Right Way.” The aroma had me tossing my cutlery aside and having at the savory bird with both hands. Nyempu thoughtfully provided a generous ladle of the gravy for me to dip the chicken in.
The thigh and leg meat was remarkably tender, well flavored and juicy. Sluicing Nyempu’s gravy over my rice and plantain added drums and a horn section to the chicken’s unique flavor medley.
While we were enjoying our meal, Adolphus joined us, and the conversation turned to their family’s ongoing support of the expansion and remodeling of an orphanage in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia. The facility sits on a single acre of land, and currently has room for only 44 of the thousands of children who were orphaned (or worse) during the fifteen years of Liberia’s civil war. It is not often you meet a family whose work impacts the lives of so many people on a daily basis. In addition to running N&K, both Adolphus and Nyempu hold second jobs, and are raising a family besides. All of this is done with humor and kindness towards everyone they meet, especially their patrons at N&K.
When you visit them, be sure to drop a contribution in the big bottle that sits on their lunch counter. Folks half a world away will thank you for it.