Our latest installment of Quick Bites brings us to Astoria for warming soups and stews.
Nneji hides its wonders well. This narrow storefront in Astoria opened mid-pandemic and, since the front window is stacked high with colorful bags, it's not immediately clear what's going on inside. Even a quick peek in the door only reveals a pastry counter stocked, as it turns out, by the nearby Rose and Joe's Italian Bakery. But I'm here to tell you that the reason you're here on 34th Avenue is to feast on some exceptional West African stews, which are all hiding under the covers of those steel trays in the back.
The owner is Beatrice Ajaero, who grew up on Roosevelt Island, went to high school in Harlem, and earned a law degree and an MBA before opening an African food and gift-item operation called Ibari, and then Nneji back in June. In addition to being a welcoming host to her shop, Ajaero is also an excellent guide to the food she and her team have made for you, not only running through the ingredients and flavors in each dish but also adding historical and regional context as well.
Nneji is takeout only for now, meaning that everything is served in sealed plastic containers and bagged up to-go. There's no seating of any kind, indoors or out, but if you're traveling by bicycle both Rainey Park and the Socrates Sculpture Park are just a quick ride-to-the-river away.
The core of the Nneji menu are the soups and stews, and I gleefully made my way through five different ones on two separate visits this past week. The striking Edikang Ikong Soup, which eats like a stew, is phenomenal, thick with chunks of tender beef, cow foot, dried fish, onions, greens, and an attention-getting number of hot peppers. Every bite made me happy. This was one of my favorite things I've eaten all year.
The tomato-based West Africa Red Stew was livelier than it looked, and I ordered mine with some of Nneji's first-rate chicken, no extra charge. You can also add some good salmon to any of the stews, and I recommend doing so with the well-seasoned Okra and Spinach. The Egusi Soup, thick with spinach and melon seed, worked nicely with the salmon as well. And the Lamb Tagine was wonderfully funky and came accompanied by a mound of Yassa, the soft-cooked onions redolent with mustard and black pepper.
All of the above come with your choice of grain, either the powdery Fonino or the dense and sticky Garri, both of which do their job well. Each $8 portion makes for a complete meal, though there are a few salads and sides on the menu which I'd like to try next time, including something called Southern Beans and a Tropical Mango and Papaya concoction. For dessert, or as a snack with coffee, there are all those Rose and Joe pastries to get through.
(Note: after I happily feasted from Nneji's takeout tubs last week, Ajaero invited me back to photograph her food in proper dishware, which is why some shots accompanying this review appear more styled than others.)
Astoria locals should definitely add Nneji to their takeout rotation. This is hearty, boldly-flavored food perfect for the many months of cooler weather ahead.
Nneji Astoria is located at 32-20 34th Avenue, just east of 33rd Street, and is currently open on Monday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., on Friday from noon to 9 p.m., and on Saturday from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Sundays (917-832-7338)