Alpha Tense is explaining how a former agricultural engineer came to be the owner of a Nigerian restaurant in Wrigleyville when he is interrupted by someone pounding on the window. A grubby, unshaven face appears above the curtain and yells, “Howya doing?”
Taken by surprise, Tense calls out, “How are you?” The door opens and a man walks in talking fast, not bothering to lower his voice, though the restaurant is nearly empty. “Pretty good,” he shouts. “Can you help me out with a little change today?”
“Oh, well–we don’t have anything yet,” Tense says, smiling weakly even as he reaches into his pocket and produces a few coins. “Here you go,” he sighs.
The man, fueled by his own momentum, continues his pitch as he heads out the door. “I’m just trying to get a hot dog or a taco or something. Thank you very much, sir. You have a good day, sir.”
If Tense is insulted by someone cadging money to eat elsewhere, he doesn’t show it. Suya Restaurant, which he co-owns with his wife, Marilyn, and partner Abu Bakar, presents a challenge to those whose definition of ethnic food is limited to frankfurters and frijoles. Suya, which opened in September, shares a block with a Tibetan and a Moroccan restaurant–an unlikely triumvirate of exotic cuisine located in the heavily trafficked area around Wrigley Field. The place is small, but Tense has managed to fit nine tables of various sizes in front of a bar festooned with posters advertising Nigerian beer. On the walls hang paintings of African landscapes and abstracts by Tense’s friend, the artist Mayi.
Tense admits that Nigerian food might be intimidating at first to non-Africans, but he’ll eagerly explain the menu to customers. Those frightened by unfamiliar items like fufu and semovita should be reassured to know that they are made from pounded yam and corn, respectively. Fufu tastes like very dense, very smooth mashed potatoes. Semovita is more like sturdy white polenta. Each is served with a choice of okra soup or egusi–a thick, rich stew made from melon seeds, spinach, or bitter leaf.
The West African influence on southern American and Caribbean cooking quickly becomes apparent. The traditional joloff rice served with pieces of chicken, fish, goat, or beef might remind diners of jambalaya. Plantains and deep-fried bean cakes called kosai are served as sides.
“People come in for so-called adventure,” says Tense. “They want to try something new. If they want to go really traditional, I bring them the fufu, the egusi or the okra, and a bowl of water. You take a piece of the fufu, you mold it to how much you think you can swallow, you dip it in the stew, and you eat it. If it’s a little sticky, you wash your fingers. If it’s too hot, you use the water to cool off.”
Tense was born in the northern Nigerian city of Jos, the first and only child (hence Alpha) of the leader of a large congregation in the Evangelical Church of West Africa. His father wanted him to be an evangelist as well, but Tense had other ideas. “Personally I wanted to be a pilot, but things sometimes don’t work that way,” he says. “I grew up under discipline. The idea is this is what your father does. Every day you are praying. Every day you are studying the Bible. About half of what you do is worshiping. It helped me a lot in life because it gives me a focus on what is right and what is wrong.”
Tense came to the U.S. in 1981 to study agriculture, first at the University of Minnesota in Crookston, about 80 miles from the Canadian border. “I almost went back home it was so cold,” he says. “The first Thanksgiving break there was a snowstorm and all the international students were stuck in the dormitory. We couldn’t go anywhere. ‘What brought me here?’ I said. In retrospect, I am glad it happened that way because it gave a better perspective on how things are here.” Homesick for Nigerian food, Tense was forced to improvise. Cream of Wheat made a poor substitute for fufu.
Tense planned to return to Nigeria to contribute his skills to his country, but instead got married while at Western Illinois University in Macomb. By the time he graduated from Southern Illinois University with a master’s degree in 1987, he and Marilyn were expecting their first child. The couple moved to be near her family in Chicago. Tense found work at an agricultural engineering company in Hinsdale.
The year after graduating he met Bakar, an electronics technician, at a picnic. The two found themselves standing over a grill preparing a northern Nigerian specialty called suya–spicy beef kabobs.
“Not everybody can do it,” says Tense. “The ingredients come from home. In Nigeria the people who make it are called mallams, which in Hausa means ‘teacher.’ When we made it people were lining up for more, so we decided to see if people wanted to buy it.”
In 1991 Tense was laid off from his job. He and Bakar began catering birthday parties, holiday celebrations, and nightclubs like the Equator Club on North Broadway, whose owners liked the idea of patrons washing down suya with lots of cold beer. Eventually Tense and Bakar decided it was time to open their own place. They chose their present location because of its proximity to the el, bus lines, and Wrigley Field, which helps draw in potential customers like the young couple in ball caps and sweatshirts who totter in, their faces flushed from too much baseball and beer.
“Welcome,” says Tense, starting to stand.
“Hi,” says the woman. “Can we use your rest room?”
“Yes, of course,” he says, and the couple rush for the bathroom at the back of the restaurant.
“Excuse me. Excuse me,” says Tense. “One person at a time, please.” The man leaves the restaurant mumbling apologies. The woman follows when she finishes in the bathroom.
Suya’s chef, Moses Magaji, emerges from the kitchen with two steaming bowls of pepper soup. He says his joloff rice won first place in a citywide African cooking contest six months ago. His mother taught him to cook, he says, but his talent is a gift from God.
“You eat this food, you will come back,” says Magaji. “Just before you came, there was a woman sitting here. She came all the way from the south side. She was eating in here for three and a half hours. She says she’s going to tell all her friends to come.”
“Another man was in here when she was here,” Tense says, continuing the story. “He was Nigerian and he was telling her a little bit about the country. It is nice because when people get together, they learn things. What better education is it when you find someone who is from a place you have not been and can tell you something about that place?”
Suya Restaurant is located at 3911 N. Sheridan. Hours are Tuesday through Thursday, 2 to 11 PM, and Friday through Sunday, noon to midnight. Call 773-281-7892.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Alpha Tense photo by Nathan Mandell.