I don’t remember exactly when or where I heard about Buka, a Nigerian restaurant in Brooklyn, but I made a mental note to myself that the next time I visited New York, I would make it a point to have a meal there. Fortunately, I was in New York recently for a business trip so it was the perfect opportunity to check it out!
The menu at Buka is quite extensive and has unique items such as goat head or cow feet. The main courses feature a variety of tomato base stews, soups and grilled meat including fish, goat, beef, chicken and snail. These can be served with various preparations of fufu — either pounded yam (the starchier cousin of potatoes), eba (fermented ground cassava—also known as manioc, yuca or tapioca) or dried yam flour (amala). I was overwhelmed by the many options, but in the end I order the grilled tilapia with jollof rice on the side.
My dinner at Buka was my first proper meal of the day, but even though I was starving I decided against ordering an appetizer because I didn’t want to ruin my meal. As they say in West African Pidgin English, “I eat small small.” Fortunately, one of my dining companions was familiar with the menu, so she ordered a bunch of appetizers as her meal and generously allowed me to sample her food.
I first took a small bite of suya, thin slices of beef grilled on a skewer. It was tender and welled season. It was served with an extremely hot pepper powder on the side, which fortunately, I did not take a lot of. Suya is a common street food sold in West Africa that is typically prepared by the Hausa people who originate in the northern regions of West Africa.
I also tried the moi moi, which are ground black-eyed peas with the skin removed. The best way I would describe it is that it’s similar to a congealed, warm, flavorful hummus. It was quite tasty and the serving size was very generous. I also sampled the jollof rice which I ordered as a side for my entrée, just to get a preview of how it would taste. I have had jollof rice many times and it is one of my favorite West African dishes, but unfortunately, the rice was bland. My friend who happens to be Nigerian, agreed. However, I wasn’t discouraged. Tilapia is my favorite fish and that was what I was most looking forward to. The waiter humorously provided updates on the status of the fish as I waited, saying he saw it cooking and that it was grilling nicely.
When the tilapia arrived, it was huge…and I dove right in! The fish was succulent and cooked perfectly. It was coated with a mixture of spices and seasoning which were a perfect balance of garlic, ginger, pepper and other additions that provided just enough heat. I was in heaven! I knew while I was eating the fish that it would be a memorable meal. Five years from that moment, I knew I would still think about the tilapia I ate at Buka. I enjoyed the fish so much it made me forget about the sub-par jollof rice. To get some vegetables in for a balanced meal, I shared a side dish of spinach with another friend. It had a deep, smoky flavor that I have never experienced before, but I enjoyed it.
I can’t say that Buka has much ambiance. There is bar in the front of the restaurant, a couple of green and white hanging fixtures which are a nod to the Nigerian national colors. As the sun began to set and it became darker in the restaurant, the waiters placed small tea lights on each table. One distinctive feature in the restaurant was in the front, there is a small “market” with shelves holding many of the ingredients used in the foods on the menu, such as pounded yam and Maggie seasoning cubes, which I thought was a unique touch.
One other interesting fact about this restaurant: it served as the back drop for the 2013 Andrew Dosunmu directed movie, Mother of George. The movie poster is hanging prominently in the front of the restaurant.
Overall, I enjoyed my dinner at Buka and I anxiously await my next trip to New York (Brooklyn in the house!). I already know what I will order—the tilapia (yes, again!), with moi moi and spinach…and I may be willing to give the jollof rice another try.