Contrary to popular belief, the best cooks in Oklahoma City are not in the hipster hovels of Classen Curve, Midtown or even the Plaza District.
To me, the true culinary masters are in the forgotten parts of this dirty city, the run-down areas that don’t get the city’s money for convention centers, pink streetcars or even decent streets. They are the honest men and women who make food for the people that are pushed aside, written off or forgotten about by society at large.
Oftentimes, many of these cooks are immigrants that come from faraway places that many of us will never have either the cash or cojones to visit, bringing their beautifully edible cultures here to Oklahoma City, opening up gems like the West African restaurant and supermarket Mama Z’s, 4534 NW 16th.
Last week, my longtime gal-pal Jodie and I went for a sadly solitary lunch there; back near the corner of a mostly destitute shopping center, there it sat, waiting for customers that seem to never come, the whole eatery empty as the scent of fresh fruit wafted in from the market next door.
If I’m being honest, it kind of made me feel a little lonelier than usual. Many of the chairs were sitting upside down on the spread-out tables, a lone student sitting in the back using what I’m assuming is the Internet. Thankfully, a few small children ran in from the market to see who came in, talking to whoever we were and telling us all about themselves.
These are the restaurant experiences I live for.
We ordered our food at the counter, the clerk seemingly doing double-duty between the restaurant and the store. As I grabbed a Malta Regal from the cooler, I pounded the non-alcoholic malt beverage back as our food was soon brought out on posh dining trays, the chef lifting the silver domes off the top and proudly presenting her dishes before us.
For appetizers, the Meat Pie ($1.50), with its perfectly warm and flaky crust, held a rich treasure of spiced meat and vegetables like potatoes and carrots inside to create a worldly Hot Pocket that I’d keep fully stocked in my fridge at all times if I could, probably snacking on one as I write this.
We also ordered the absolutely tremendous Moi Moi ($1.50), featuring boiled and blended beans mixed with peppers and onions, molded into an orange cake-like shape that gave off the hearty vibe of an unidentified meat somewhere in its spectacular taste. I didn’t ask what meat though, I just ate.
When we asked the clerk what he recommended for lunch, he told us that everything was good, so, admittedly, we ordered our entrees only from the succulent pictures in the menu. But, you know, he was absolutely right: everything was good, starting with Jodie’s Indomie Noodles ($11.99), extremely popular in Nigeria.
With its mix of thin ramen-esque noodles, various peppers and a few fried eggs, the Indomie secured a flavor that I’ve always craved when eating packaged noodles but could never achieve. Here, fully realized by Mama Z’s with her own special additives, it succeeds in pulling off a tricky combination that quickly grows on you and, by the time you’re through, are ready for a second bowl.
The yam being the top commodity in West Africa, it’s seemingly utilized more than any other vegetable at Mama Z’s and was absolutely mastered in my dish, the famed Nigerian meal Asaro ($13.99), a yam porridge that makes a mashed base of the boiled tubers and expertly mixes it with a spicy tomato sauce and even spicer fried fish, crafting a lunch where each bite is hellishly hotter than the next and worth it.
A distinct tale of midday dining goodness, the fish—once again, don’t ask me what kind because I didn’t ask—gave off a high and tight vibe of comestible character, the two big fat pieces with skin still on them covering the soft yam-matter, each bite a downright delight, just watch out for the thin bones.
As we paid our checks, two men walked in, speaking another language and sitting at a table, presumably regulars. I hope and pray that Mama Z’s has enough of Oklahoma City’s African community and their allies to support it, because it would be an absolute disservice to this already small food scene if it were to go away anytime soon. Cómpralo ya!
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