In a village that seems to attract only franchises or sure-bets (Asian, Italian, etc.), it's a fair bet I'll never live to see a Senegalese restaurant open in Oak Park.
So if you want to try the worthy cuisine of this West African country, you have to travel a little – actually you have to travel a fair distance up to Badou's Senegalese (2055 Howard).
Once there, you'll find a small restaurant in a strip mall. The cooks are the team of Badara "Badou" Diakhate and his wife, Paul, two of the sweetest people who've ever worked a kitchen.
Our first course consisted of boulettes (fried balls of cheese and meat) and pastels, chicken-filled empanada-like fried envelopes of dough, served with a tomato sauce, delicious and…fascinating. If I were to serve these to guests, I think it would be very unlikely that any would guess the country of origin. Perhaps they wouldn't even guess the continent correctly. Senegal, in addition to drawing on indigenous culinary customs and resources, was also influenced by the Portuguese, English and French, so the resulting food is rather difficult to pinpoint.
There's only one other Senegalese restaurant in Chicagolan, and that's Yassa in the Chatham neighborhood.
At Badou's, Chicken Yassa is signature dish, and it's chicken cooked with ingredients like onions and mustard, the flavor popping pleasantly. There was some cassava in there, too, for texture.
One of Badou's most popular dishes is Diby Yaap, a very tender lamb served with plantains. One of my dining companions has a problem with chile heat, so Badou dialed down the Scoville units for her, and that kind of personal touch was apparent throughout the meal.
We'd called earlier to see if Badou would be serving Thiebou Djen, the Senegalese national dish, which is fish that's scored, smeared with chile paste and served with joloff rice (rice with tomatoes, onions and a few other spices). Though I definitely felt that Paula was steering us toward the filet ("because I don't like the bones," she said), I stuck with the whole fish, which Badou said was, indeed, tastier (bones add flavor).
Because we'd called, though, Badou made us some fish balls. He told us he'd never made these fish balls in his kitchen before, and although he really didn't know us, he wanted to make us a little something special. I was sincerely touched.
Eating at Badou's Senegalese is probably a lot like eating at Badou's house. En route to the washroom, I stopped in the kitchen a few times and talked to Badou and Paula as they cooked, and he gave me some things to taste while I was standing there. A few plates trickled out, and we shared those. Then Badou came out, had some of our beer, went back and cooked some more. The whole meal took about three hours, and I do think this is the consequence of a more casual (less-fast paced) culture and the thoughtful cooking of Badou, which takes time.
We left feeling very good about the people, the place and the food.
Badou's Senegalese. It's worth the trip.