Monrovia:  West African Soul Food Meets the Best of the South

Many years ago my husband and I vacationed on a tiny island off the coast of Belize called Caye Caulker. The island was split in two during a hurricane at some point, with all hotels, restaurants and homes on the bottom half. A few people lived on the upper half, including a woman named Miss Claudette who, if you dared swim across the channel, would cook you a stellar lunch. We made the pilgrimage, despite my fear of swimming in deep open water. The food – fish curry, veggies and rice – was simple but incredible. The best part, however, was being a guest in Miss Claudette’s home and enjoying the fish she caught from the sea, the vegetables she plucked from her own garden and sampling her curry recipe that’s been passed down for generations. This was no ordinary dining experience; it was quirky and unexpected, but most of all it was memorable.

Last night we had a glimpse of that meal at Miss Claudette’s, but we only had to drive to Cranston for the experience.  Monrovia is a new restaurant on the west side that features both West African and Southern cuisine. I didn’t know what to expect, but was intrigued by the mix of cultures. When we walked into the hot restaurant, the owner greeted us with a big smile, despite the heat, and handed us the extensive menu. I was a bit nervous because there were no other patrons in the restaurant, and as we perused the selections and asked a few questions, my hesitancy grew.  They were out of several items and I was confused by the selections of portion sizes and side items. Then I remembered Miss Claudette’s. We threw caution to the wind, ordered a bunch of dishes (“large”) and sat down in one of the air-conditioned booths in the corner.

The food is cooked to order so it didn’t come out quickly, though the wait didn’t feel too long. Soon the owner rolled over a cart filled with gorgeous dishes of food. We started with the fried fish, which was nothing like what you’d get at Iggy’s or George’s. This fish came whole, head and all, lightly fried in a flavorful batter. The flesh flaked off easily and tasted fresh.  My 9-year-old, who’s an adventurous eater for sure, decided to try the eyeball, which he declared “delicious.”  I’ll take his word on that one …

My favorite was the side dish – jollof rice, which is an African style jambalaya of yellow rice, meat, vegetables and spices.  It came with a house-made hot sauce that packed a ton of heat and had amazing flavor (they sell this sauce by the jar).

Next we sampled the fried plantains. They were cooked to perfection; caramelized and lightly crisped without being greasy – phenomenal. Ditto for the baked chicken, which sounded boring but was nothing of the sort. On the plate came one leg and one thigh. The meat was prepared perfectly; it had a ton of flavor and fell right off the bone. That was my 6-year-old’s favorite dish.

Next up: an extraordinary version of red beans and rice. The flavor of the beans was indescribable – everyone at the table fought for the last bite. Finally we tried the cassava leaves. The leaves were cooked in oil and spices and ground down to a paste. I truthfully didn’t love this dish as it had an herbaceous quality that I found overwhelming. My husband, however, greedily scooped large portions of it over white rice.

After dinner, we talked to the owner and her daughter/co-owner Jackie David. Jackie was born in Liberia and moved to the States as a child. Before settling in Rhode Island, she lived in several southern states including Oklahoma and Georgia. Though she loves the Ocean State’s progressive art community, she misses the southern climate and food. She decided to open this restaurant to feature the best food of the south, along with her mother’s native foods of western Africa. The result is a quirky but wonderful conglomeration of home-cooked ethnic food.

If you’re looking for a traditional restaurant experience, this might not fit that bill. Menu items listed might not be available and you might be confused by the choices and portion sizes. You won’t be drinking an over-priced margarita or be offered a cheeseburger. But, like that lunch at Miss Claudette’s, the quirkiness is the best part. At Monrovia you’re treated to a delicious, authentic meal, the likes of which you could never make at home. You’ll feel like you’ve been transported to a cafe in Africa or invited into a kitchen filled with southern hospitality. That’s the beauty of this place; it’s what will keep you coming back for more (that and those red beans and rice).

Monrovia restaurant is located at 25 Gansett Ave in Cranston and is open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner (except Thursdays, when they’re closed for lunch).   

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