Ghanaian cooking, and the cuisine of west Africa in general, is pretty scarce in metro Phoenix. If you’ve never experienced the pleasures of kenkey, banku, or peanut-butter soup, the place to go is Max’s Mukhaase in Mesa, a casual family-run restaurant that has been open for about a year now at the Safeway strip mall near Guadalupe and Alma School roads.
On a regular weeknight at Max’s, the clientele might include a couple dining quietly, or perhaps a party of eight sipping on palm wine while discussing politics, or transfixed by the latest Ghanaian pop music videos that tend to be playing on one of the televisions in the restaurant’s spacious, sparsely decorated dining room. All of this is to say that a meal at Max’s is markedly relaxed, friendly, and languid — this is not a destination for a quick, efficient, or formal lunch or dinner — and by the end of the meal, you may feel as if you’ve been eating in the personal living room of Max Danso, the restaurant’s congenial owner.
Danso, a native of the Ghanaian capital city of Accra and a former Intel engineer who quit the tech world to spend his days making traditional west African dishes, may offer to start you off with a bottle of palm wine. If you’re an adventurous drinker — or just an enthusiastic drinker — you will say yes. The cloudy-white drink, made from fermented palm sap, is slightly tart and nearly as effervescent as your favorite soda pop. It may be served in a traditional wooden bowl, or perhaps in a regular drinking glass. Either way, it offers a crisp, vinegary counterpoint to the rich stews and heavy starches in your immediate future.
There are Western dishes like pasta, burgers, and hot dogs on the Max Mukhaase menu, but you can find that kind of stuff anywhere. A better place to whet your appetite is with the house meat pie, which is exactly what it sounds like: a doughy, slightly crumbly pastry filled with a flavorful blend of minced beef and onions.
From there, you might move on to stuffed zucchini with peanut-butter sauce, which is essentially a nutty, carrots-and-cauliflower soup, its broth tinted a bright orange-red from generous dousings of palm oil, a primary ingredient in many west African dishes. The stuffed zucchini portion of the dish — chunks of squash are hollowed out and stuffed with bundles of cooked white rice — is fine, but the real allure is in its peanut-butter sauce, which subtly evokes the fatty, rich appeal of peanut butter.
Speaking of peanut butter, the restaurant’s signature peanut-butter soup is remarkably good. The amber-hued stew is thick and creamy, with a slightly oily texture, and served over large pieces of bone-in chicken. Its flavor is rounded out with notes of ginger and coconut milk, but the dish is so subtle and evenly composed, you might not immediately guess it was made with peanut butter. Two enormous scoops of sticky white rice, steamed to an almost creamy consistency and looking like perfect round snowballs, are served with the soup. A balanced spoonful of the dish would involve scooping up some of the rice and chicken, and then dipping it into the rich, velvety peanut-butter soup to soak up its flavor.
At a Ghanaian meal, starch is a major component of almost every plate, and one of the most popular starches on the menu at Max’s is banku. The staple dish is made of fermented corn and cassava, an edible tuber better known in Latin America as yuca. When the starchy tuber is dried to a powder, it’s called tapioca, the stuff of pudding cups and gluten-free baking recipes.
Banku, however, tastes nothing like sweet pudding. Instead, the oversize dough balls, which come neatly encased in plastic wrap, resemble something like mashed potatoes. Remove the plastic wrap and take in the dough’s slightly sour notes, which may take some getting used to. But the banku is the perfect accompaniment to a dish like okra stew. If you’re already a fan of okra, it will be easy to fall in love with Max’s okra stew, which is vaguely sweet, with the delicious acidic tang of tomatoes and a nice flash of hot peppers. The banku’s role in the dish, you might say, is to offer the creamy, cooling balance of something like sour cream.
Even more pungent and sour than banku, though, is kenkey, a kind of sourdough dumpling that looks a lot like an overstuffed tamale, with flavors reminiscent of injera, the spongey, crepe-like bread of Ethiopian cooking. When you remove the slightly sweaty sheath of corn husk, the bulbous mass of fermented corn is very dense, so that you can almost slice it like bread. Kenkey, not surprisingly, is a close cousin to banku, the main difference being that banku is steamed, rather than boiled.
In any case, probably the best way to enjoy kenkey is by having it with the fried fish plate. The fish in question here, tilapia, is brightly seasoned and delicately fried to a beautiful brown crisp, then served with the incredibly sour kenkey, along with slices of fresh avocado, and a small plastic cup filled with a very spicy pepper sauce. A little bit of everything on your spoon — the tangy dough and the mildly sweet hunk of fish, a cooling bit of avocado, and a dot of the fiery hot sauce — is as lovely and transcendent a bite of food as you’re likely to find at Max’s.
But if you want to try what is sometimes called the national dish of Ghana, order fufu. The starch, a slightly buttery and gummy mound of cassava dough, is immersed in a lovely, light tomato goat soup. The goat slides right off the knotty hunks of bone, the meat fragrant with the garlicky broth. And the fufu itself is creamy and dense, acting sort of like a flavor sponge. The traditional way to enjoy fufu is to pinch off a bit of the stretchy dough with your right hand, roll it into a ball, and then dunk it in the tomato soup. Of course, using your spoon is fine, too.
There are no desserts on the menu at Max’s Mukhaase, but chances are you’ll be too stuffed anyway by the time the bill lands on the table. That’s the thing you come to find out about Max’s Mukhaase, and the flavors of west African cooking in general: This is hearty, wholesome, stick-to-your-ribs kind of food. Thick stews, rich nutty sauces, and tart, dense balls of energy-giving starch are exactly what you’ll want after a long spell of either work or play, or any time that real sustenance is in order.
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If you’re looking for lightweight dishes, in other words, you won’t find them at Max’s Mukhaase.
1245 West Guadalupe Road, Mesa
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday 1 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Stuffed zucchini with peanut butter sauce $4.99
Kenkey with fried fish $11.99
Fufu with goat soup $11.99
Peanut butter soup with rice balls $11.99