As most restaurants on 116th Street either modernize or move on as new residents move in, Le Baobab Gouygui is a very welcome respite, a bustling room full of West Africans on their phones and chatting together. The feeling is more like a community center or neighbor's home, and from the looks of it, it's the most loved traditional kitchen remaining on the street. Gouygui is the Wolof for "the baobab," making their focus quite apparent.
I always love being around Wolof speakers, because it sounds like surprise everywhere. Their word for "yes" sounds a lot like the English word "wow." A man on his phone at the next table was constantly surprised by the things whomever he was talking to was saying.
Daily lunches rotate, four or five different dishes on each day. If you arrive after 2 or 3pm, there may only be one or two of these choices remaining.
The restaurant has also opened a branch in Brooklyn, On Fulton Street near Bedford Avenue, another location that is home to a decent number of West Africans.
When the two of us showed up at the 116th location at 4pm, the place did have a sense of transition, and we were told of the four usual Monday lunches, they were out of the thiebu djen, a classic rice and fish dish that never disappoints, and suppu kandja, an okra sauce that comes loaded with lamb and fish.
Thankfully the two dishes they did have were both excellent, starting with the thiu poisson ($12, below, may read "thiou au poisson" on other menus), which has a whole on-the-bone tilapia under a spicy tomato stew with vegetables and onions. The spices, not to be underestimated, are subtle at first but get the mouth going pretty quickly. The white rice is a good counterpoint to the stew.
Fatty hunks of on-the-bone lamb surround a big portion of fried rice on a plate of thiebu yapp ($12, below). The rice has vegetables and small hunks of more lamb cooked into it, and is served with a side of the delicious mustard vinegar lemon sauce that you see with many West African meat dishes like dibi (available for dinners).
A note about that pepper you see on most Senegalese dishes: Be careful with it. What looks like a Scotch bonnet, this guy spreads his "love" even when it brushes other things on your plate. Even if you like your food hot, cut this into very small pieces and approach with caution.
Le Baobab also makes drinks and dessert, so take a look into the refrigerated case and grab a couple beverages if you like sweetness. They have a ginger drink, as well as bouye and sorrel ($3 each, below). Of note is the bouye, something I had not tried before even in Senegal. This is made from powdered baobab fruit, and has a sweet taste like candy. It hints slightly towards chemicals, but I think this is only because I had no reference point for the sweetness of this fruit. It is definitely worth the try! We inquired a bit further and were directed across the street to the small grocery and fish market which carries the powder. Apparently full of health, one of these $5 bags came home with us to be mixed into morning smoothies.
Also in the refrigerator, and perfect to take home if you're completely stuffed, is their fine thiakry ($4, below), a millet-based sweet dessert that is something like rice pudding. We ate ours plain, but it is encouraged to sprinkle on cinnamon or some small hunks of fruit as desired.
On Friday lunch, don't miss the domoda yapp, a peanut stew somewhat similar to maffe that happens to be the national dish of neighboring Gambia. They eat this in Senegal as well, and no one in the kitchen hails from Gambia as far as I could discern, but for a taste of this tiny (yet currently very newsworthy) country, this could be your spot.