To understand the food of today, we need to look back. African-American culinary favorites are deeply rooted in Africa and the Caribbean traditions – from cod fritters and jerk chicken to black-eyed peas and braised oxtail. These weren’t always well-recognized dishes in the continental dining lexicon, but that has, thankfully, shifted. In honor of Black History Month, here are nine heritage-rich African and Caribbean restaurants that carry on and evolve the traditions that started it all.
Palm House, San Francisco, California
Pulling influence from the West Indies, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and beyond, this beach-vibed bistro makes you feel like you’re a stone’s throw from the surf. The menu includes summery standouts, such as scallop ceviche pepped with habanero, Red Stripe battered cod tacos with a kicking jerk aioli, and a vanilla-accented pork chop accompanied by plantain dumplings. For a good time, order a few rounds of the white rum-powered passion fruit slushies topped off with a dark rum floater. We take no responsibility for whatever happens next. Make a reservation at Palm House.
Demera, Chicago, Illinois
If you really want to experience Ethiopian fare, make sure to bring a group to dinner. Order a giant round of injera bread decked out with a slew of selections appealing to carnivores, vegetarians, and pescatarians alike. Our favorites include berbere-spiced shrimp wot (a thick stew), kik alicha (turmeric-spiced split yellow peas), and derek tibs (spicy sautéed lamb chunks). A glass or two of tej (honey wine) will help quench the food’s fire. End your meal with a traditional Ethiopian coffee, starring house-roasted beans served in a black clay jebena pot. Make a reservation at Demera.
Cuba Libre, Washington, D.C.
Decorated to look like a back street in Old Havana with a vibrant Latin soundtrack to match, the restaurant aims to whisk guests away to a refined vision of the city’s golden years. James Beard Award-winning chef-partner Guillermo Pernot focuses on the favorites – from Cubano sandwiches and black bean soup to lechón (pulled pork) and picadillo-style empanadas stuffed with ground beef, raisins, and Manzanilla olives. Wash it all down with one of the restaurant’s namesake cocktails or one of the many mojitos available. Make a reservation at Cuba Libre.
Peli Peli, Houston, Texas
The space is designed here to give diners the impression they’re dining under the branches of a giant acacia tree and the sky above. The something-for-everyone menu is a considerate introduction to South African fare. Meet bobotie – spiced ground beef topped with tomato stew, flaky pastry topping, and mango chutney – their answer to pot pie. Chicken chunks marinated in sweet curry sauce are speared with apricots to create sosaties (kebabs). And espetada – flame grilled beef chunks basted with plenty of garlic herb butter – pay homage to the country’s substantial Portuguese community. Make a reservation at Peli Peli.
Coconuts, Palo Alto, California
The menu here is charmingly divided into “di small tings,” “di big tings,” and “di sweet tings.” In each section, Jamaican-born chef Robert Simpson adds island flair. Coconut-crusted shrimp are built for dipping into the chili-upped passion fruit dipping sauce, curried goat arrives on a bed of jasmine rice with logs of fried plantain, and there’s rum cake with coconut ice cream to finish. The bar menu favors Caribbean favorites, such as a rummy piña colada laced with sweet guava, and riffs on cocktail classics, including a hibiscus martini. Make a reservation at Coconuts.
Tap Tap, Miami Beach, Florida
The cuisine of Haiti gets the star treatment. To start, hone in on the akra fritters made with taro-esque malanga tubers – which are best when dipped into the slightly bitter watercress sauce – and the piquant conch ceviche. Stewed oxtail and goat stew are worthy entrees, especially when accompanied by kalalou (stewed okra), fried yucca, and ears of corn streaked with black from a turn on the grill. Oh, yeah, and don’t forget to order one of the sweet ‘n’ tart mojitos powered by Barbancourt Haitian rum. Like you would make such a grievous error. We know you’re no amateur. Make a reservation at Tap Tap.
Alma de Cuba, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Hemingway would love this place. Restaurateur Stephen Starr and chef Douglas Rodriguez serve up Cuban classics done right and a strong cocktail program in a dusky setting with a Latin soundtrack. Start with ceviche, all of which deftly balance sweet, spicy, and acidic accents. Oxtail croquettes or spinach-Manchego-artichoke escabeche are equally worthy openers. Hook into the corn-crusted dorade or squeal over the lechon asado for your main. Make a reservation at Alma de Cuba.
10 Degrees South, Atlanta, Georgia
Take a trip to South Africa without a daylong flight. The menu highlights the country’s best-known flavors, ingredients, and dishes. Get a taste of peri-peri sauce (made with chilies, citrus, garlic, and spices) as a dip for the chicken-packed spring rolls, try beefy boerewors sausage in a flavorful tomato-onion sauce, or give biltong (beef jerky) a go. Go with the Safari Platter for a superb selection of favorites from the region. Make a reservation at 10 Degrees South.
Appioo, Washington, D.C.
Explore the criminally overlooked world of Ghanaian cuisine at this fuss-free eatery in the history-rich Shaw neighborhood. Chef Prince Matey puts out all the classics from the West African country. A good starting point is fufu, starchy dumplings traditionally used as a utensil – though you can request a spoon – in your choice of soup (our favorite is either peanut butter or okra). Jollof rice another great introduction, which is somewhat analogous to Creole dirty rice though the seasonings differ and there’s no meat in it traditionally. If you like a touch of tang, opt for kenkey, a fermented corn and cassava dumpling served with fish and shitto (a spicy pepper sauce bolstered with dried fish). Make a reservation at Appioo.
Nevin Martell is a Washington, D.C.-based food and travel writer and the author of several books, including Freak Show Without A Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations. Find him on Twitter @nevinmartell.