In this era of neatly packaged, smoothly run corporate restaurants, Esther Mulbah's little strip-center spot in Lenexa isn't just old-fashioned. It's downright aberrant. Her five-month-old Esther's African Cuisine seems to do everything wrong — by conventional standards. And that's why I like it so much.
Sure, I wasn't thrilled about an hour wait for my meal on a Saturday night, but Mulbah isn't just the owner of this eccentric West African restaurant: She's waitress, chef and cashier, and she clears tables. Sometimes her younger children, Gondo and Zjohnpu, step in and help, but mostly this is a one-woman show. You almost want to stick around to applaud her when she finally turns off the illuminated "open" sign at the end of the night.
That sign stays lighted a lot longer than the restaurant hours listed on a sheet of paper taped to the front door. The posted hours say Esther's closes at 6 p.m. Saturdays. The truth is, Mulbah keeps her dining room open as long as customers are coming in. "If the sign is on, I'm open," she says.
Mulbah and her husband — both natives of Liberia — moved to Kansas City in 1994 to attend Calvary Bible College. A few years after graduation, Saiday Mulbah was diagnosed with ALS, which progressed quickly. Esther was a widow by 1997.
Mulbah was left with five children and no career. She took several jobs but decided to ease into the restaurant business a few years ago by serving a few dishes at a West African grocery in Overland Park.
This year, she took a leap of faith and leased a former cupcake shop on 87th Street Parkway. There's still no sign on the building ("We're saving for that," she says), and directory assistance is still giving out the phone number and address of her former location at the grocery store. You might pass this place if you don't look closely, but once you see the Peachwave frozen-yogurt joint, you're practically there.
Now back to the things that might drive some customers crazy: Mulbah serves her cuisine in paper containers and Styrofoam boxes and with plastic forks. (I used to be snobbish about this, but these days, I'll happily eat from any platter as long as I don't have to cook.)
For patrons who must have an alcoholic drink, the closest thing Mulbah has to an intoxicating beverage is booze-free ginger beer. She says she plans to go for her liquor license someday, maybe after she pays for the signage.
And, for something completely different, Esther's African Cuisine may be the only full-service restaurant in the metro offering meal-replacement shakes. I should be ordering the shakes, but the West African cuisine sounded so much more alluring. It's not an elaborate menu — how could it be with one cook? — but everything I tasted was truly delicious.
"This is home-style food," Mulbah says. "These are the kind of dishes I serve in my home. And that's how I treat my customers, as if they were dining at my house."
Unlike the bony, gristly goat meat served in too many of the city's ethnic restaurants, Mulbah's slow-braised goat hunks are meaty and fall off the bone. And chunks of moist chicken are smothered with a delicately seasoned brown gravy — this is as close to traditional American soul food as you'll find here.
Meals are served with white rice or, for an upcharge, an extraordinary concoction of rice cooked with tomatoes, carrots, onions, peas and shredded chicken called Jealof rice. "It's the Sunday dish in my country," Mulbah says. It's hearty and comforting, as a side or a full meal.
Another classic Liberian dish on the menu is ground pea soup — peanut soup, by any other name. A silky, creamy liquid is dappled with pieces of chicken and green pepper, and the peanut taste is a subtle note in a more interesting cacophony of mostly spicy flavors.
Mulbah is fiercely proprietary about her use of spices. Her mantra: "It's a secret." I could detect ginger, chilies and garlic in many of her dishes, though, and I'm guessing that she also uses, discreetly, cinnamon and thyme.
The blandest choice on the menu also has the most festive name, fu fu (not to be confused with the French foufou, which means crazy) — a starchy steamed dumpling made with cassava and potatoes. It's good dipped in the robust peanut soup or the goat stew. A bit of fu fu is also tasty with the chick kebabs (dark meat skewered and grilled) or Esther's fragrant stewed collard greens, made with smoked turkey and peppers.
Desserts, Mulbah explains, are less important to Africans than to sweets-loving Americans, but she offers a sticky roasted coconut candy, and a pastry she calls purple pie, a wedge of slightly grainy sweet-potato pie made with purple sweet spuds. She serves it with a can of "whipped cream" that she lavishly applies. Note: It's better with the whipped cream.
Esther's African Cuisine may struggle on the way from being a modest neighborhood space to a dining room ready for patrons from all over the metro. Eating here is supposed to feel like you're a guest at Esther's house, not like an anonymous suburban customer. But if you accept the place's eccentricities and Esther's unhurried pace, you'll go fu fu for the food.