Great African in an unassuming North County location

Sandwiched between a bar and a liquor store in the center of a drab Florissant strip mall, Tam Tam African Restaurant doesn’t look like much. Inside, the sounds of African music add a note of interest to an otherwise bright, barren room. A television plays quietly in one corner, and a large sign advertises the services of a Ghanaian bank in another. Don’t let this deter you.

Hinting at the French influences found in much of West Africa’s cuisine, each meal begins with a free appetizer of hot, freshly fried flatbread called croquette. Different from the pancake-like injera of Eastern Africa, its taste and texture was that of a chewy fried wonton – utterly addictive when sampled with the interestingly spiced African salsa. A mixture of onions, tomatoes and green peppers, its kick was the result of a light addition of curry, something that would show up often in our food at Tam Tam, but always as an undertone rather than a dominant flavor.

The menu itself represents a mix of West African countries, though Senegal, the homeland of owner Thierno Niang, is featured prominently. Most entrées come with your choice of white rice, couscous, fried plantains or foofoo, a traditional African side of boiled yams pounded until the starch has becomes gummy and difficult to tear.

Of the appetizers, our favorite was tabbouli. Here, it is made with couscous, chopped shrimp, peas, carrots, green beans and corn, then tossed in a simple vinegar-and-oil-based dressing, ensuring its moisture. The color of saffron, it is steamed for several hours, leaving it light and fluffy, and the shrimp lends a complementary note without heavy-handedly overwhelming the grainy flavor of the warm couscous itself.
Grilled shrimp topped with a spicy stew-like mixture of onions, tomato and peppers was also excellent. The succulent sweetness of the shrimp lingered just long enough before the heat crept up to slowly remind you it was there.

For entrées, yassa guinaar (chicken) and yassa yapp (lamb) are marinated in a mixture of mustard, lemon and onion and served atop a caramelized onion mixture reminiscent of a reduced, black-pepper-laden French onion soup. Lamb was the preferred choice; an unidentifiable cut, it was slow-cooked until tender and was a filling addition to the already hearty onion mixture.

Djoloff, African fried rice with onions, garlic, peas, carrots, green beans and corn, was merely OK. It was, however, served alongside lamb chunks, which were once again beautifully cooked. Rather then being braised as I’d assumed, it was described as being steamed for several hours, and the cut – the upper foreshank with hip joint and knee intact – was one I’d never tried before.

On our last visit, our server informed us that the tilapia is what Tam Tam “is known for.” It was a dish I’d passed over, as I generally find tilapia to be a boring, bland fish, but the intoxicating smell from a neighboring table lured me back. A specialty of the Ivory Coast, poisson a la braisse is a whole tilapia slit several times and marinated in oil, vinegar, sugar and the now-familiar African seasonings. It had a blackened look that hinted at overcooking, but its crisp, intensely charred skin, both sweet and sour from the marinade, had protected the moist flesh beneath, ensuring it was neither bland nor boring.

The only dessert, thiakry, is traditionally a mixture of vanilla, nutmeg, raisins, couscous and milk or cream, similar to rice pudding. In the Senegalese version offered at Tam Tam, nutmeg is omitted and in place of raisins you’ll find a mix of African fruits – mango, papaya and pineapple on our visit. Sweet and creamy, it also has a subtle sourness thanks to the addition of cottage cheese.

Several traditional beverages are also offered, including the outstanding jus de bouye. The drink is made with the fruit of the massive baobab trees found throughout Africa; the pulp is soaked in water for several hours, strained and mixed with pineapple juice, orange juice, cream and sugar. An African Creamsicle of sorts, its unexpected chalky taste played interestingly with the tanginess of the fruit mixture.

With service as great as its food, Tam Tam is a spot we plan to frequent.