The first time I walked into Badou Senegalese Cuisine in Rogers Park, the eponymous owner Badara "Badou" Diakhate was seated at a table in the empty dining room prepared to dive into a heaping plate of rice, collard greens, and smoked turkey. If you saw it you might think it looked like something you could order at Ruby's in Garfield Park.
Not quite. After Diakhate abandoned his dinner and returned to the kitchen to take care of his guests, he produced a small sample of what he'd made and offered us a taste. The greens were bright and snappy and the broken jollof rice grains were saturated by a brilliant burst of lime, lemon, and habanero that was tempered by the almost porky shreds of smoked bird. In my mind's eye I drew a cartoon airplane bouncing from Howard Street to the west side to the Mississippi Delta and across the ocean to West Africa.
Diakhate calls this dish "Badou's Senegalese Soul Food," and at the time it wasn't even on his menu—it was just something he was playing around with. But when I returned for it two days later his wife, Paula Jones, told me she'd sold out, which convinced him to offer it full-time. Besides that, Diakhate's menu lists a number of iconic Senegalese dishes, which we'll get to in a bit. But his cooking style is improvisational, flexible, and ruled only by whether his customers like it spicy, sour, mild, or sweet. "Basically I go by the taste of the person," he says.
Diakhate is 49—though he looks like he's 30—and was born in Dakar, the son of a fisherman who brought his catch back home every day. His mother would prepare daily feasts with these fish—lots of tuna—feeding not just the immediate family of ten but friends, neighbors, and relatives who stopped by—20 to 25 people every day, he says. "My mom was very generous. Especially when it comes to food."
At the time it was unusual for a boy to hang out in the kitchen with the women, but Diakhate would fetch water, go to the market, and help out when he returned. "My friends used to come and tease me," he says. "The girls used to tease me. But because of the passion I have for my mom I was always there helping her." His dedication paid off the year his mother sent him to his grandmother's farm in the country to help out during summer vacation. He was expected to work in the fields, which required a five-mile predawn walk each morning through hyena territory. "I said, 'No way. I cannot do this.' But my grandmother said, 'You either have to go to the fields and work and help or you stay home and do something else.' And I said, 'OK, I'll stay home and try to see what I can do.'" He quickly parlayed a day's work for some fishermen into a portion of the catch, and made his grandmother and uncle a meal that convinced them to let him stay home in the kitchen and cook.
Senegalese food is a product of the country's position at the gateway to West Africa. The Arabs, the French, the Portuguese, and English all stopped by and contributed. Lots of fish is consumed, as is rice and couscous, and spices you'd recognize if you spent any time eating Jamaican or Haitian food. But when Diakhate came to the U.S. 23 years ago he wasn't cooking much of it for anyone but friends and family. He speaks a half-dozen languages—including French, Portuguese, Wolof, Serer, and Fulani—which helped him get a job teaching French and African literature at Lake Michigan College in Benton Harbor. But then he moved on to a cab in New York City, and a few fast-food stints, before he finally landed a job as an editor in the acquisitions department at Northwestern's library 18 years ago, where he remains today.
"I used to cook in my house all the time, following the tradition of my mom," he says. "My Senegalese friends used to come to my house and then over the years after working at Northwestern my coworkers and colleagues would come. They eat and tell you, 'Man, you need to open a restaurant. You're wasting your time.' For over 20 years people have been telling me the same thing: open a restaurant."
With some investment from his daughter, he and Jones did just that last September, moving into a former barbecue joint in a strip mall on the Evanston-Chicago border, right down the street from Chez Violette, Chicago's only Haitian restaurant. Badou's isn't Chicago's only Senegalese restaurant—Chatham's beloved Yassa was first—and for now, Badou isn't always immediately prepared to cook everything on the menu. But he'll go to great lengths to make something happen. On my second visit, when Jones told me she was out of collard greens, she called Diakhate at work on his lunch break asking him what she should make. For the second time he abandoned his own meal and rushed into the otherwise empty restaurant to cook for us. In short order he produced a plate of yassa djen, a whole, lime-seasoned tilapia smothered in caramelized onion and a chile sauce made with jalapeños and Jamaican scotch bonnets. Then came a blazing hot plate of diby yaap, supertender chunks of lamb seasoned in a vinegary onion sauce that was equal parts Jamaican jerk and vinegary escoveitch. These plates were preceded by piping hot pastels, empanada-like puff pastries stuffed with peppery shredded chicken and served with two beverages: icy glasses of purple bissap, a sweet drink made from hibiscus blossoms said to be good for blood pressure, and a spicy ginger-pineapple cocktail.
On another occasion, Diakhate prepared his thiebou djen, the national dish of Senegal—a whole fish, scored and smeared with a chile-tamarind-based sauce, then deep-fried and served with a towering mound of jollof rice. And then came hearty, thick mafe, a peanut butter-based stew with fat chunks of chicken and yam, as well as golf-ball-size chicken-stuffed pastries called boulettes. It took me a third try, but I finally got myself a full serving of his experimental Senegalese soul food, which he served with a side of stuffing—like a West African Thanksgiving dinner.
Diakhate says he's bringing in a couple of African cooks to help him execute the full menu more consistently, since he has plenty of irons in the fire. In addition to his day job he also blogs on African politics and plans to return to Senegal in time to run for president in 2022.
Until then the best way to approach this little spot is to call ahead and put yourself in the chef's hands—you might end up with something as marvelous as his collards and smoked turkey. "I'm cooking basically everything that my mom used to cook," he says. "Over the years, by practicing and by practicing and experience, I started developing a sense of taste. When I walk by somebody's house and I smell something I know exactly what they put in the food and I can make it. Without even seeing or talking to them I just smell it and I know how to make that."