Just off St. Bernard Avenue in the 7th Ward sits Mother Land Cafe, which opened in October. The unassuming neighborhood eatery offers an exotic (even for a city like New Orleans), satisfying and authentic taste of West Africa.
Specializing in the dishes of Gambia and Senegal, chef Teda Ftty and her family serve cuisine with deep roots in south Louisiana, even if it's by no means Louisiana food. Outside of a few notable spots — such as Bennachin in the French Quarter — there aren't many opportunities to explore the tastes of West Africa in New Orleans.
Mother Land is not a fancy operation. A glance around the restaurant reveals a place that's essentially one step above a takeout joint, down to the colorful photographs of menu items on the wall above the counter. That wall also serves as a partition between the kitchen and the dining area. There are no chefs cooking in the open here, and there's only a small square window in which to order or catch the attention of the staff.
The bare-bones decor isn't particularly romantic or contemporary (paper napkins, drinks poured from pitchers into red plastic cafeteria cups), but the food more than makes up for it. Recent visits turned up a number of enjoyable dishes, with flavor and ingredient combinations that should please hungry passersby and foodies alike.
A good first experience would be to order the thiebou guinar, a huge plate piled high with lamb (chicken, fish or beef are also options), sauteed spinach, sliced tomato, cucumber and sweet peppers, a generous portion of perfectly cooked coconut rice and a savory sauce. It is a resoundingly pleasurable and filling plate of food; the cool vegetables and hot spinach were a perfect accompaniment to the fork-tender, bone-in lamb.
Other notable dishes include thiebou jienne, (also written as thiebou dieune) similar to the thiebou guinar, only with whole-roasted tilapia, which is seasoned nicely, but it is not for diners who shy away from fish heads and bones. Foufou, referred to by the staff as "African gumbo," is a rich and heartwarming palm grain stew served with warm, sticky mashed plantains. Beef and chicken, sadly, were unavailable, but a special version made with whole crab was good enough to keep us from caring. The mafe, a peanut butter-based sauce also served with rice and a choice of protein, is another worthy option. As for beverages, the hibiscus-flavored juice is Kool-Aid sweet, but tastes good when combined with the house ginger drink, which brims with fresh ginger root.
It's not noted on the menu, but spice lovers are well-served to order a side of the house's eye-watering-but-delicious hot sauce fashioned from African peppers.
Service at Mother Land can be laissez-faire, with entrees arriving one after another as soon as they're ready, sometimes leaving diners to watch as companions nearly finish their meals. But that doesn't detract from the fact that this cafe is serving flavors and ingredients that are both familiar and wonderfully novel.