West African blues twangs from the speakers and coalesces with the sounds of fish grilling, plantains sizzling, and the muffled bang of a pot or pan coming from the small kitchen. A map of Africa painted in red, its countries labelled in French, offers diners a silent geography lesson from the wall above the beer-stocked refrigerator, while outside the painted visage of an “Indomitable Lion” – the mascot of Cameroon’s national football team – proudly keeps watch from the window.
Given this atmosphere and the tropical heat outside, I could be eating in any port city from Dakar to Libreville, some culinary stopover on the road from Cote D’Ivoire to Cameroon; only the bottles of Malbec in a rack against the wall break the spell.
El Buen Sabor in Villa Crespo, Buenos Aires’ only African restaurant, provides this mental escape to the Gold Coast as well as heaping portions of the most popular foods of west, central, and southern Africa. Dozens of framed articles from the country’s biggest newspapers and magazines occupy places of honour on the walls, a testament to the popularity and quality of this small restaurant in a barrio known for its varied dining options.
Chef and owner Maxime Tankouo, a former footballer in his native Cameroon, came to Buenos Aires in 2001 and, fascinated with the city, made the permanent transition one year later. After six years of running a locutorio in Palermo, he decided to focus his time and energy on a more fulfilling endeavour.
“I wanted to do things related to Africa, things that, at that time, I wasn’t finding here”, he says with a thick French accent.
El Buen Sabor opened its doors in 2008 at the prompting of his Argentine friends, enamoured with the family recipes he brought with him from home and would cook for birthdays and get-togethers. Since then, it’s won over both critics and adventurous restaurant-goers alike with its rich, spicy, stick-to-your-ribs meals.
Traditional African cuisine is known for its abundant portions – something to keep in mind before stuffing yourself with the delicious, fresh-baked bread and tomato spread that comes before the meal. Even on a second trip to El Buen Sabor, when we should have known better, it was difficult not to spoil our appetites on the bread (take our advice and save it for mopping up your plate later).
The main courses are varied, highlighting regional favourites from throughout western and southern Africa: bobotie, a South African dish of minced meat, almonds, raisins, and turmeric, with roots both Dutch and Indonesian; south Asian-inspired rotis with beef, fish, or pork; mouth-watering stews of sweet plantains and bits of tender lamb; whole grilled fish served smiling up at you on a bed of tomato and onion, to be picked clean to the bone and washed down with a nice sweating glass of beer. And for vegetarians, rich sauces derived from peanut or chard, salads overflowing with avocado and vegetables, or hefty servings of fried red beans and potatoes.
Most of the principal dishes also come with your choice of a side, allowing for multiple combinations and pairings. White rice, manioc, sweet potatoes, polenta, and semolina are all options, depending on the main course. The plantain is the undisputed star of the side dishes, in my opinion; this starchy banana-like fruit, sometimes fried and salty like a potato crisp, other times steamed and sweet to the point of being a dessert, is too good for words. At El Buen Sabor they are served piled high on the plate, blackened and sweet, enough for three people.
The salsa de maní, or peanut sauce, was a surprising departure from the preconceived peanut notions I had in my mind (mostly Thai curries, my only point of reference). More of a soup than a sauce, the flavour of the peanuts was blended smoothly with vegetables and spices, and given an extra kick with just the slightest addition of the restaurants’ spicy condiment – a reddish-yellow dollop of rocket-fuel placed innocently enough, but with warning, in the centre of the table. A perfectly cooked drumstick lay half submerged in the sauce, meat falling off the bone. For vegetarians, a side of rice or fibrous manioc lends more substance to the rich, simmering sauce.
The restaurant’s signature Cameroonian dish and unsung star of the menu is – and I dare you to contradict me – the Directeur Général, a vegetable and chicken stew studded with slices of sweet plantain. I like any dish with a clever or interesting story behind the name: the Directeur Général, or “DG”, is so named because it is a lunchtime favourite of Cameroonian business bigwigs, a culinary status symbol among CEOs and ambitious bureaucrats. The bite-size pieces of chicken and vegetables (carrots, green beans and others) blend together to form a salty, concentrated, delicious stew, and the plantains are fried just enough to get a nice caramelised exterior, the inside firm like a potato. Bloated and content, my eyelids heavy, it was easy enough to feel like the dish’s privileged namesake.
The desserts – provided you have room for them – are mercifully light, consisting of sweet fruit salads of mango, pineapple, papaya, and watermelon. For those of you blessed with two stomachs, try the koeksister, a South African dessert of fried, braided sweet pastry. Then roll yourself home.
El Buen Sabor offers something hard to come by even in the best of restaurants – the chance to step in off the street and set foot on another continent entirely. The authenticity and quality of Chef Maxime’s delicious family recipes ensure this little slice of Africa in Villa Crespo will continue satisfying diners for some time.
El Buen Sabor, Camargo 296, 4854-8000. Main courses $45-85.
Open Tues-Fri, 8pm-late; Sat, 12.30-4pm, 8pm-2am. Closed on Sundays and Mondays. Visit their website here.
Content originally appeared at The Argentina Independent.