Wanderlust: Senegal

I want to travel everywhere. I think this is a common sentiment. And while I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do some roving in my young life I’m still trying to get to one of my early “destination fascinations”: Senegal and West Africa. In 1996, in reference to the country’s capital, Dakar, Howard French at the NY Times declared, “...nowhere has the marriage between Europe and Africa been as thoroughly consummated.” I can get behind this because I love the products of hybrid cultures.

Like many people, I too discovered West Africa by way of Europe. I studied French language in high school and college and learned about all the different places France had colonized, with special interest in Africa’s colonization in the 17th century. Out of all of France's occupied territories, Senegal has spent the most time under the country's control, becoming independent in just 1960.

So, while I'm patiently waiting to visit Senegal, I have the unparalleled privilege of living in New York City, home to the majority of Senegalese-Americans. In Harlem, just down the road from our very own Red Rooster is the infamous Le Petit Senegal. There is plenty of media coverage of the neighborhood, which stretches an undetermined length across 116th street (and surrounding), made up of Senegalese vendors, West Africa social clubs and most importantly Senegalese food. Here's a quick breakdown:

Most Senegalese food spots in Harlem have a similar vibe and menu. They are often modestly lit, either very busy or nearly vacant (the neighborhood loves take-out) and usually don't adhere to the menu, so experiences can vary. Here are some that I have tried and enjoyed (on at least one occasion).

Le Baobab 120 W 116th St Possibly the most lo-fi of the list, you won't feel out of place in Le Baobob. The food is great (they will usually only have one or two dishes to choose from depending on when you go) and the service counter is friendly. "Merci" goes a long way.

Kaloum 126 W 116th St Just a few doors down from Le Baobob, Kaloum tends to get a few more mentions in the media, often for its long standing presence and introduction of African food to many Harlem residents.

Africa Kine 256 W 116th St Possibly the most hi-fi of the list, Africa Kine feels a lot more like restaurants New Yorkers are used to. The classic limited selection of dishes still exists, but what they serve and when they serve it is definitely more consistent. Their website is a little funny but it's nice that they have one.

Keur Sokhna 2249 Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd This is the only one I haven't had the pleasure of dining in yet. Reviews look good and most people comment on its relatively pristine service setting.

Patisserie Des Ambassades 2200 8th Ave PDA is a soft introductory experience to Senegalese food and is an experience. Part cafe (the coffee isn't the worst, but the house-made croissants are unbelievable), part Senegalese sandwich shop, PDA serves an eclectic menu, the coolest of which is the croque-monsieur, served with turkey instead of ham, for the Afro-Muslim lunch crowd.

For more travel stories by Mac Malikowski:

Five Dollar Food Challenge: "Fataya" at Patisserie des Ambassades

By: Justin Chan

Harlem has always been known for its soul food, but many immigrant communities are diversifying the neighborhood's food culture. Mexican and Cuban restaurants have flooded Spanish Harlem, while halal stands occupy busy roads and hope to draw in some potential customers. Food in Harlem, contrary to popular belief, is not one-dimensional. In fact, it is far from it.

While Latin and South Asian foods have always been popular cuisines in the city, I decided to look for something more in tune with the neighborhood's African roots. Harlem, after all, has been home to the African American community for decades, so it was only fitting that I looked for a spot that closely reflected its heritage. As I wandered through the neighborhood for an hour or so, I passed by several restaurants that offered many different kinds of cuisines, but none seemed to serve anything that I could buy for my Five Dollar Food Challenge.

My journey seemed hopeless until I made my way down Frederick Douglass Boulevard and arrived at 118th Street. At that point, I had finally reached a restaurant, or rather a cafe, that served cheap yet delicious grub. Patisserie des Ambassades is a small and deceivingly upscale Senegalese eatery that differs from nearby holes in the walls in its decor and atmosphere. The cafe's outside appearance closely resembles the facade of a bakery in Little Italy, while the inside bursts with vibrant colors. To add to its decoration, the cafe displays mini pastries in front of its window.

Patisserie des Ambassades serves breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner. Entree prices can range up to $13, but for $5, I had the chance to experience something that was truly distinctive of Senegalese cuisine. When I asked the manager to recommend something affordable but unique, he suggested ordering the fataya, a patty shaped in the form of a crescent with a thick crust. At first glance, I found it eerily similar to an empanada, a stuffed pastry that has become widely popular in Latin America and Europe. When I tasted it, however, I could easily spot the difference between the two delicacies. The stuffing inside the fataya, although made of beef, tasted like saturated, minced tuna. I could also taste a bit of citrus. The patty was served with a hot chili sauce, but I decided against dipping it in order to avoid mixing my palate. Even without the extra dip, I enjoyed the flavors inside.

An extra $5 got me Senegalese spring rolls, which are a tad different from the Vietnamese ones you might find in Chinatown or Flushing. The skin is thicker and more gelatinous, and the meat is in the shape of a sausage. As soon as I bit into one of the rolls, the grease and juice oozed from the skin, which only made my eating experience more enjoyable (and, unfortunately, less healthy).

Though it took the kitchen awhile to cook both the fataya and spring rolls, it was worth the wait. Having never tried Senegalese food before, I definitely relished my first experience and look forward to visiting Patisserie des Ambassades again to try more tasty delights.

Patisserie des Ambassades, 2200 Eighth Avenue (between 117th St & 118th St), New York, NY 10026; tel. (212) 666-0078

Photos: Justin Chan

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Why You Should Thank That Hot Dog Vendor

Street Food By Julia Burgi

Street food is naturally part of an urban environment, proven by thousands of years and dozens of cities. Mobile vendors around the world provide customers with inexpensive, tasty dining options: mafe, a peanut-based stew, in Dakar, Senegal, or falafel sandwiches ("Extra white sauce please! Only a little spicy.") in New York City.

Despite the immediately apparent value of food vendors, there are people out there who want vendors off the street in America. Such people claim that vendors have an unfair advantage over property-based businesses, that vendors do not pay their taxes, that vendors foster criminal activities or are criminals themselves, or that vendors create unnecessary congestion on the already crowded city streets.

These concerns are understandable, but not exactly valid. Mobile vendors, of all types, do not have the same advantages as property-based businesses - they can't have seating or enclosure from the elements, for example. Also, a report by the non-profit the Street Vendor Project, 96% of street vendors do pay taxes. And as a bi-product of being on the street, vendors actually - surprise! - create a safer and more business friendly environment!

Street vendors provide the safety of witnesses on the street - crimes are much less likely to be committed if there is someone watching. The reason why street vendors do cause congestion, not usually on a constant basis, but at certain times of day, is because there are so many people who rely on them and value them. Furthermore, a study of a neighborhood in Chicago in the 1990s showed that removing street vendors had a sizable impact on the property-based businesses: their revenue dropped significantly.

Why might this be? Street vendors, and street food, are not just businesses. Rather, street vending is a culture, a life of their own. The character that vendors give an area is a major attractor.

I grew up in a Chicago, a place where mobile food vendors are struggling today to run their businesses - and the downtown area is lacking in a conspicuous way relative to similar areas in New York. Don't get me wrong - I love Chicago and there are many neighborhoods with great vibes, but I think the downtown area could benefit a lot, business-wise and gustatorily, from mobile food vendors.

Mobile food vending is a legitimate business enterprise that has benefits not only for your stomach, but the whole community!