Welcome to a weekly series at Gastronaut called Sorry I'm Late!. The premise: Our dining editor, Timothy Malcolm, is new to Houston. So much is happening here, so while he's reporting on and eating all the new stuff, he's also digging back into the past to get a better sense of how we got here. Each week he'll write about another restaurant, giving a brief review of his experience.
This week: Aria Suya Kitchen
A few weeks ago I met a lovely Nigerian woman who's been living in Houston for a few years. After telling her about my occupation, I asked her to tell me a bit about the city's Nigerian food. She didn't hesitate.
"We run this city," she said, with dead serious eyes.
She proceeded to tell me about her favorite Nigerian and West African restaurants, most notably Aria Suya Kitchen on Westheimer. She praised the restaurant's more upscale interior, then told me it had the best jollof rice in the city. "It's the best. No question." It should go without saying that Aria Suya vaulted to the top of my must-visit list.
I should've read her boldness as foreboding. Recently I visited Aria Suya, which is dressed in a white-and-black color scheme with African vases hanging from the ceiling and paintings of African women hanging on the walls, and asked my server what to order. The menu features a variety of suya (West African kebab), plus plates of meat or seafood with jollof rice; he pointed me to the asun, or chunks of chewy goat meat, stewed in a spicy sauce. Allow me to emphasize spicy.
"It's spicy," he said, with those eyes that say, "Dude, you don't know how spicy I'm talking."
"That's cool," I said, with the eyes that say, "Oh, I can take it because I'm absolutely an idiot."
"How much spice do you like?"
I opted for somewhere in between a little spicy and fire-breathing. I waited for the meal while sipping on zobo, a refreshing hibiscus and ginger drink that puckers the lips just a little. Then, finally, the asun arrived. Another server looked at me, shaking her head.
"Oh ... spicy."
There were so many warnings, but I pushed onward. I sliced into the goat and ate a piece with a morsel of fat still hanging on. The meat was perfectly cooked and fell apart relatively quickly. After a second the heat broke through and surrounded my tongue. It was a layered heat—a few different chilis, I thought. I tried the traditional long-grain jollof cooked in tomato, onion, and meat stock and thought my friend was onto something. Lightly salty with bursts of acidity and umami, the rice was magnificent.
I ate more goat. I had some plantain. Then more goat. Rice. Goat. And within 10 minutes I felt surges bolting across my face. I scratched my cheek, then my arm, wiped invisible sweat from my brow, rubbed my hand through my hair, tried to eat more rice, then zobo, water. So much water.
The server smirked. "I'm sorry," he said. I shrugged it off, said I wanted the dish, then downed another few chunks of goat. More water. I let out a couple "Woooo"s to myself, and to anyone nearby. Water again. I ate more than half, maybe three-quarters even, then bowed out. If spice is any indication at all, Nigerians run this city, no question.
The server continued to tell me that a Mexican man visited recently, claiming he could take any heat, and ordered the most extreme setting of goat, causing everyone in the restaurant to be on notice. The man ate a little, then told everyone it was spicier than anything he ever ate. He proceeded the eat the whole damn thing.
"He finished all of it?" I asked in between heavy breaths.
"Yup," said the server. "You did good!"
He's right. I did good.
As a parting gift from myself to myself, I ordered six suya wings to-go. The sauce is the traditional rub of crushed peanuts and chilis, and it supplied only a brief kick. Otherwise the chicken was quite tangy and smoky. And it was fantastic, just like the experience itself. The servers couldn't have been nicer, the food was beautifully flavored, and I can't wait to return—but next time I'll order some decidedly cooler items.