No offense to my live-in love, but I developed a crush on Ifiok Etuk the moment he emerged from the kitchen of Hessini Roots International Café in Aurora to greet me & a mutual friend of ours with a broad, pearly, lasting smile. My affection only deepened when I caught a glimpse of that same smile on the cover of the self-help book propped up on the counter: titled A Romance Truth, it was written, as Etuk explains charmingly, after “I had worked on myself to become a better person, to make myself a man instead of a boy.” But the final spell was cast when I tasted his food.
Born in Calabar, Nigeria, Etuk was 13 when he came to Denver to live with his aunt and uncle in 1987. By age 25, he had worked his way up the corporate ladder to a management position at Taco Bell; when he got laid off, he says, “It hurt me, & I decided I won’t work for someone else anymore.” So he bought a cooler & started hawking burritos to downtown clubgoers in the wee hours. That led to the acquisition of a van from which he sold hot plates; finally, in 2009, he opened his brick-&-mortar location to offer a heartwarming, belly-filling hodgepodge of African & American soul specialties, with a little Mexican fare thrown in for good measure. We’re talking everything from unusually light, greaseless, cornmeal-fried catifsh nuggets & stewed collard greens laced with shredded, smoked turkey to pepper soup with goat & thick, luscious, golden-brown strips of fried plantain. (And, yes, there are burritos too, distinguished by a stew of tomatoes and onions that oozes around the beef, beans, & rice.)
Just as Ethiopian food is served with the spongy flatbread known as injera, torn into pieces that are used as scoops in lieu of utensils, so the Nigerian plate (like that of other West & Central African cuisines) revolves around fufu—a sticky, fluffy, bunlike mound of boiled, mashed yam.
We pulled off chunks to mop up two chunky, deeply earthy stews. Afang is based on the dark, edible leaf of its namesake vine, with a beefy, iron-tinged flavor much like collards; nutty egusi, meanwhile, combines ground melon seeds with palm oil, onions, tomatoes, & a touch of habañero pepper. The coconut rice they come with likewise contains just enough habañero to add a little color. In short, blasts of capsaicin are the exception to the rule of Etuk’s repertoire, negating his concern that “people might think [Nigerian] food is too spicy.”
If you’re a fire-fearer yourself, however, I suggest you ease into your meal with an order of chin chin.
This everyday snack is made from a dough of flour, milk, eggs, sugar, & nutmeg, which is cut into nuggets & fried; the result is reminiscent of graham crackers or even Cap’n Crunch. It’s sweet enough to double as dessert, although Etuk plans to offer some traditional Nigerian desserts in the future as well—courtesy of his dear “auntie.”
I think I’m in love—& I haven’t even tried the cow’s feet yet.
Hessini Roots International Café: 2044 Clinton St., Aurora; 303.317.6531; Lunch and early dinner Mon.-Sat.; $1.99–$11.99.