Nigerian Street Food Meets a Fast-Casual Model at Suya Suya
Dera Nd-Ezuma cooks as close to his memories of his hometown of Abuja as he can on a street corner in Northern Liberties.
When you walk into Suya Suya, the place smells like onion and paprika charring on the grill; the guy behind the counter in the black “Su-ya Soon” tee mops strips of beef with a slurry of spices. If the lunch or dinner rush is slow, you can get a seat in the path of the fan humming in the corner of the room, facing the photo mural of the streets of crowded, hectic Abuja, owner Dera Nd-Ezuma’s hometown.
Abuja taught Nd-Ezuma about suya, the street food that’s fixed in the memories of anyone who knows Nigeria’s capital city: skewered meat sizzling on a grill, rubbed with ground peanuts, paprika, ginger, dry chilies and crushed bouillon, then sold cheap for family meals, quick lunches and late-night snacks.
Nd-Ezuma came to New Jersey on a basketball scholarship when he was a teenager and then became an accountant. But running Suya Suya is what he dreamed of — a place to capture the flavors and street scene of Abuja, conceptualized with a businessman’s eye. He found a small spot on the corner of 4th and Fairmount, where much of the business is dedicated to takeout.
His suya — Suya Suya’s suya — come as bowls, mostly, tailored to your tastes with options for proteins, rice, sauce, heat level and sides. There’s jollof rice, spicy and red with tomato paste, topped with grilled Brussels sprouts or those beef strips muddy with yaji and tender as anything. Plain white uto rice is striped with a fiery red sauce that’s made with ground sausage and dank with spice, then knobbed with smoky chicken or shrimp curled like apostrophes and cooled out by a sweet coconut milk sauce and some cabbage and red onion slaw. On the side, there are cornbread muffins and gorgeous thick-cut slices of caramelized plantain, slick with dark sugars, that would still be the right choice even if the cornbread was the best in the world.
If a bowl seems like too much of a commitment, the kitchen also serves its suya as tacos — meat folded into a corn tortilla with some chopped onions, a little cabbage, and a hit of sauce that tastes like a campfire aioli, all smoke and heat and a baritone sweetness. They might just be better than the bowls.
Nd-Ezuma cooks as close to his memories as he can on a street corner in Philly. He gets all his spices directly from Nigeria, channels the street-food vibe and the taste of suya he knew when he was young. Bowls and tacos? That’s just business — an easy point of entry, a customizable menu to get the people exactly what they want. But the feel of Suya Suya? The flavors?
That’s all about home.
2 Stars — Come if you’re in the neighborhood
0 stars: stay away
★: come if you have no other options
★★: come if you’re in the neighborhood
★★★: come from anywhere in the region
★★★★: come from anywhere in the country
Published as “All About Home” in the July 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.