Springfield has a great deal of Mexican and Asian restaurants - but it is lacking when it comes to some other ethnic foods. A relatively new African restaurant is bridging some of those gaps for local foodies with adventurous palates. Listen to the report:
If you didn't know it was there, chances are pretty low that Kingsway Restaurant (3236 Ginger Creek Dr.) would ever catch your attention. It's in a strip mall on the west side of town, off of Iles and across from American Harvest Eatery and The Corner Pub. The outside has a modest yet colorful sign, which clarifies the food is African and Caribbean, however this place specializes in West African cuisine.
Says general manager, Daniel Obebe, “I've noticed that a lot of people are more familiar with Ethiopian food. Ethiopian food and our food is completely different because they are two different regions of Africa - Africa is a continent - not a country, like most people think it is.” Daniel is a 25 year old who was born in Nigeria and works here with his mother, grandmother, and a couple other employees.
Daniel came to central Illinois as a teenager, with his mother. She ran a catering business back in Nigeria, but after winning the lottery there she decided to try and live out the American dream. The restaurant now specializes in well-loved recipes from back home: jerk chicken, jollof rice, plantains, gizzards, goat curry - the list continues.
Back in the kitchen, head chef and Daniel's mom, Ohmolara, is showing me around. She points out two huge pots of rice being kept warm on the stove. One has the jollof rice, the other rice and beans, which she points out is made with: "Fresh thyme ... coconut milk, onions, and allspice…" Special spices go into every recipe - some have to be imported from Nigeria. Ohmolara says bringing this food to Springfield was an easy decision - there was no competition. “People have to travel from here to St. Louis or Chicago to get something like this, so we decided to open. Since we opened we have seen great response ... We have some spicy stuff, and we have some normal stuff. People have been loving it.”
Today I play it safe and order some jerk chicken which comes with fried cabbage, plantains, and rice and beans. On a previous visit I was more adventurous and went for gizzards and plantains. While gizzards, an organ meat from the digestive track of chickens, are decidedly not my thing, the flavors used are truly unique and exciting. I also tried a goat curry, and unashamedly took a friend's leftovers. (They were promptly devoured by my husband upon arriving home, before I could manage to have a second bite.)
The only slight disappointment comes when Ohmolara prepares my jerk chicken by taking the darkly colored thigh and leg out of a fridge. It's been slowly roasted, covered in juices that contain at least 12 different spices. Ohmolara clearly roasted it in-shop, but proceeds to pop it in the microwave to heat. As delicious as the dish is, I can only imagine it would be even more so if prepared another way. Still, I'll take it however I can get it. The dark meat maintains its moisture and the portion is well worth the $11-dollar price tag. Ohmolara says she plans to change up the recipes depending on the season and what food can be easily sourced locally. The goat, for instance, is raised in Southern Illinois. Many of the dishes can be made vegetarian or vegan, and with the wide array of vegetable dishes offered, Kingsway is sure to be a favorite among that crowd.
If all this sounds a little overwhelming, don't be dissuaded. Daniel assures me the staff is happy to help novices to this sort of food navigate the menu. “We're going to definitely help you out with the menu when you come down here, and break it down and explain everything that you're getting. And also the menu is self-explanatory, it lists the items that are inside of the food and everything.” Kingsway is located in the same spot another restaurant had previously resided. The Vietnamese and Thai place called Jujobee Cafe had a short life. Kingsway hopes for a more successful future allowing it to broaden Springfield's food horizon.
CORRECTION: This story originally said that Kingsway was across from The Office Sports Bar. That bar is actually on the other side of town.