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Those who step inside Aurora’s Akwaba Restaurant are greeted with the smell of sizzling red snapper, tilapia, and skewered chicken kebabs. A wall-mounted flat-screen television works its way through a robust playlist of Afro-Caribbean music videos, beams of warm sunlight pour in through the windows, and West African art hangs on the walls. The restaurant nestled along the High Line Canal isn’t packed to the brim, but the folks who are present feast eagerly on multiple plates.
There’s a coziness to the eatery, making its name all the more fitting: “Akwaba” means “welcome” in Twi, a dialect of the Akan language. Though Twi is mostly spoken in Ghana and the Côte d’Ivoire, many West Africans like Akwaba owner Linda Essoh are familiar with the greeting, which the caterer-turned-restaurateur believes speaks to the collective culinary spirit of the West African community. “Being originally from Côte d’Ivoire, Ivorian food is close to my heart—but Akwaba is special in that we don’t just limit ourselves to one country’s cuisine,” she notes, pointing out Ghanaian, Togolese, and Nigerian-inspired fare on the restaurant’s menu. “Rather, we cherish the diverse foods and preparation methods found throughout West African cultures.”
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In 2015, Aurora’s late mayor Steve Hogan inaugurated Afrikmall, a 56,000-square-foot building that was once home to restaurants, boutiques and salons, art displays, clothing stores, and recreational areas representative of the area’s growing African and Caribbean populations. Akwaba was among Afrikmall’s first restaurants, quickly garnering a small, yet eager fanbase. A few years later, in the wake of an ownership change at the now-defunct shopping center, Akwaba moved to a larger location near the intersection of East Colfax and Laredo streets. “I wasn’t really feeling myself there, so I had to move out,” Essoh says. “And I’m glad I did. We’ve been here since [December 2021], and I really like this new space.” Patrons seem to agree, as evidenced by the many regulars who shuffle in to pick up their evening meals.
Fried appetizers like nêm and bofrot grace the menu as delicious West African takes on spring rolls and fritters, respectively, while sauce kplala, a hearty Ivorian gumbo, is a standout entrée. Sometimes spelled “pklala” and referred to as “ewedu” and “rama” by the Yoruba and Hausa people, respectively, kplala is the Ivorian name for jute leaves, which are commonly used in Côte d’Ivoire as a vegetable in soups. For the kplala, Essoh and her team ground the leaves into a fine paste to add to onions, meat, and fish sautéed in red palm oil. Then they add paprika, oregano, ginger, cinnamon, curry and garlic powders, and turmeric to yield an aromatic stew with a dark green tint (courtesy of the jute leaves).
For $15, Akwaba’s sauce kplala is served with white rice or (for more adventurous eaters) attiéké, a side dish from southern Côte d’Ivoire and western Ghana of grated and fermented cassava that is tossed with peppers, onions, and palm oil. The cassava semolina found in Akwaba’s attiéké is especially fine in texture, resembling melt-in-your-mouth couscous. For $2 extra, get your stew with plantains, yams, and fufu, a popular choice for natives and newbies to West African cuisine, according to Essoh. The sticky dough is traditionally made from a variety of starches (cassava, specifically, at Akwaba) and is shaped into balls, which you pinch off in pieces to dip into your main dish.
Akwaba has many crave-worthy dishes to choose from, including spins on familiar West African fare—a love letter to the incredibly diverse food landscape of the region’s different communities. The restaurant’s peanut butter stew, in particular, is a sensational dish worthy of seconds and even thirds, elegantly balancing lusciously nutty flavors with an earthy aftertaste. Equally as delicious is the eatery’s eggplant stew, reminiscent of a baingan bharta from your local Indian joint but with added astringency. Another great option is fish yassa, a famous plate hailing from the Gambia and Senegal. The speciality is made with white fish, peppers, onions, and garlic marinated with spicy mustard, then served over white rice with lemon wedges on the side.
Akwaba’s long-grain jollof rice is also a must-try. The simple entrée is garnished with tomatoes, meat, and a potpourri of miscellaneous spices, though its goes-with-everything versatility makes it a paragon of West African grub. Pair it with anything from grilled mackerel to dêguê, a variety of semi-sweet yogurt speckled with millet grain. Lamb lovers can also pick up some dibi, a Senegalese dish of grilled spiced lamb chops often served as street food. Whatever you order, be sure to pair it with a ginger, passionfruit, or hibiscus flower juice.
“We have something for everybody,” Essoh says. “Everyone has a different palate and preferences, but I’m confident that those who come to Akwaba will be able to find a dish they love.”
16251 E. Colfax Ave., Aurora