Esther Agaba can't seem to decide what to call her popular African restaurant on West Camelback Road. The former Fu-Fu Cuisine, barely three years old, was renamed Esther Cuisine not long ago, and has recently been rechristened Love Cuisine. The one thing that each version has had in common is cuisine — both in its title and its kitchen, where Agaba does all the cooking herself.
A Nigerian who grew up in Jamaica, Agaba offers both African and Caribbean fare at this small West Phoenix diner. It's hard, she says, to find authentic African food in the Valley. If she's changed the name of the restaurant and tweaked her menu over the past several years, it's because she was perfecting things. Now that she's refined the menu and the name, she promises, she's done making changes.
"Everything is going to stay the same," she confided when I visited for lunch recently. Agaba is jocular and familiar, teasing about the spiciness of dishes and offering to put habanero sauce in my niece's iced tea, which both parties found hilarious.
Love's décor — a pastiche of thrift store tchotchkes, brightly colored shower curtains, and enough wall-framed aphorisms ("Work Hard and Stay Humble"; "Let Go and Let God") to choke a Hobby Lobby clerk — is frankly dreadful. Garish vinyl tablecloths are sticky, and a flat-screen behind the check-out counter blares televangelist sermons at dinner and lunch.
But no one is coming to Love for either ambience or religious salvation. They're coming here for authentic African cuisine with Caribbean influences. And those in on the secret of this well-regarded ethnic restaurant are getting just that.
African food is traditionally very spicy, but on each of my visits (during which I scoured the menu for items I didn't remember seeing before, like a delicious fried whole-fish tilapia), Agaba let my companions and me adjust the heat on pretty much every dish. During a lunchtime visit with an old friend, we both fell in love with the habanero sauce served with our starter soups. Mine was an equisi soup, a slow-cooked Nigerian concoction featuring pounded yam and rich chunks of goat. My companion ordered the thyme-infused oxtail soup, a hard-to-find delicacy I'll be back for. Made with onions, whole tomatoes, slivered red pepper, it offered enough oxtail to count as an entrée.
Agaba was out of buffalo wings when we ordered the Love sampler plate, so ours came with a double order of the jerk chicken, which were nicely charred and slightly dry hunks of white meat, flavored with traditional jerk seasonings of allspice, garlic, and a hint of ginger. Fries were of the frozen, bagged variety, and we skipped them after a quick taste. The sampler also came with four of Agaba's pof-pofs, and their deliciousness proved that they deserve that "Best Doughnut" plaque they were awarded by this newspaper in 2012. These unsubtle Nigerian delicacies are hush puppy-like balls of dough, crispy on the outside and dense, hot, and sweet on the inside. Made from flour, sugar, butter, and nutmeg, they're addicting and not designed for anyone who's recently been anywhere near a diet.
An order of Love's meatballs was a perfect accompaniment to the sampler. This signature dish delivered a half-dozen hot, juicy lumps of tender ground beef balls in a neatly sweet tomato-basil sauce and served atop a great pile of tender white rice. We ordered a plate of fried plantains to complement most of the other sides and entrées, although they're also a solid starter or a nice dessert. These were crispy with caramelized sugar; mild but not bland.
The yassa chicken had a nice green-olive tang that permeated flavorful white meat chicken and tender strips of onion and green bell pepper. This and other entrées offered a choice of white or jollof rice, which is traditionally made with tomato paste and onions, but we were never asked which we preferred and were always given white rice. We figured if we ordered the jollof rice and beans, we'd get jollof rice, and we did. Both it and the beans, which turned out to be black-eyed peas, were a disappointment. Starchy and bland, the rice was sticky and not especially tomatoey. A side salad of chopped pico de gallo was nice and helped flavor the rice a little when we stirred it in.
On a Saturday afternoon, my friend Ann and I split a bowl of the pepper soup, with its simple, perfectly salted Nigerian broth. Crowded with hunks of tripe and tender goat meat, still on the bone and some of it nicely gristled with fat, this soup was delicious as-is, and even better when we added spoonfuls of the creamy habanero sauce Agaba brought as a side. The extra heat turned an already delightful, straightforward soup into a complex appetizer that I'm looking forward to eating again.
Another entrée improved by an improvisation was the delicious curried goat. I forked up the occasional plantain along with the juicy cubed meat, which had been marinated as well as cooked in curry, then slathered in a mild curry sauce and studded with green beans and bits of carrot. The combo of the rich, lightly spicy goat and the sweet plantain was wonderful.
While Agaba's cooking is consistent, she's pretty much a one-woman show — something that's apparent in how long it can sometimes take for food to show up during particularly crowded mealtimes. ("The tenderness of goat curry or the golden brown perfection of pof-pofs does take time," the menu cautions.) Yet she remains unflustered, even when her restaurant is mobbed with hungry diners. Having forgotten to bring us our flatware, she joked with Ann and me. "I didn't forget. I just want you to eat with your hands, like in Africa."
3633 West Camelback Road
Hours: Noon to 7 p.m., closed Wednesday and Sunday
Curried goat $9.99
Yassa chicken $9.99