A line of yellow cabs is double-parked along Ohio Street, blinkers flashing. But they're not waiting for passengers--they're waiting for lunch. For the last three years, Nigerian-born Lookman Muhammed has been feeding a steady clientele from the back of his custom-heated truck, which is usually parked in one of the last few spaces at the east end of Ohio, just yards away from the inner drive. The food comes directly from the kitchen of his tiny Rogers Park restaurant, Toham. "We basically serve meats other countries don't eat," says Muhammed, smiling as he hands another cabbie a plate of spicy jollof rice with oxtail. But it just as well could have been cow foot, tongue, kidney, or boiled cow skin.
Ten years ago, as a student at Lagos State University in Nigeria, Muhammed, who's now 36, was immersed in food technology courses, learning how to package and present food to customers. In 1994, realizing his job prospects in Nigeria were slim, he left his parents and moved to Chicago for the promise of work with his sister, Toyin, who owned the Sholly Bakery in Uptown at the time. For the next three years he worked in the front of the bakery and drove a cab at night.
During that time, he found that African restaurants were sorely underrepresented in the city. "In most of the restaurants, the service and food was not the way it should be," says Muhammed. "It's not what I was used to." So he convinced Toyin to close the bakery and go into business with him. The brother-sister team named their restaurant Toham, which comes from parts of her first name and his last name.
The restaurant is small, with only four or five tables. Giant photos of Nigerian political leaders hang on the walls. Behind the front counter, a circular steel pot the size of a baby's bathtub is loaded with spicy red chicken in a somewhat oily sauce. Menu items make heavy use of pounded yams, fermented cassava, and boiled rice. Meat and poultry are often braised in liquids to render them more tender; there are also a few soups (spinach-vegetable, okra, jute leaf ) and three stews, each of which contains onions, stewed tomatoes, ground chilies, and dried spices. Most of the dishes can be packaged and kept warm in Muhammed's van, so he usually offers about seven items, with a choice of white or jollof rice--a red-hued long-grain rice seasoned with chilies. Besides the oxtail and various cow parts, there's also chicken, fish, or goat.
Americans who sample the meat will almost surely think it's overcooked, but for Nigerians it's perfect. "We like to work a little bit when we chew our food," says Damola Olumegbon, one of Muhammed's regular customers and a fellow Nigerian. "Any time I'm downtown, I come here. Sometimes I get rice, or yam porridge, or fried plantain." Muhammed says about 80 percent of his customers are from Africa, but he's trying to change that. He thinks aloud for a moment about altering his cooking methods and serving the meat more on the juicy side, to appeal to the American palate. "I want to expand the business, put some more money into it and offer more choices, but doing that and getting all of the right ingredients takes money," he says.
To that end, he's enrolled in the nursing program at Truman College in Uptown. He fits in classes at night and on weekends, working at the restaurant the rest of the time. "I know there's a shortage in nursing right now," he says confidently. "I'm getting straight A's, and when I'm done"--next year--"I'll be able to make enough money to help the restaurant."
Unlike Ethiopian food, with its spongy injera and dollops of spinach, chicken, and rice meant to be eaten with the hands, West African cuisine has more of an emphasis on root vegetables and spicy stews. The amala, or fermented yam, is an acquired taste, arriving in a grayish steamed mound, wrapped in plastic; it's neither sweet nor sour. The menu description for the okra soup is "boil until slimy." The goat meat pepper soup is a safer bet. But Muhammed says Americans are adventurous eaters by nature, and he's confident they'll come around and eventually discover his native cuisine--before he and his sister are faced with closing down yet again. "We gotta struggle, and work for it," he says. "We hope it gets better."
Toham African Restaurant is at 1422 W. Devon, 773-973-4602.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Eric Fogleman.