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A World Away: Philly’s Secret African Cuisine


tilapiaTucked in the shadow of the airport and within the smell of a few dozen oil refineries is Southwest Philadelphia, which is perhaps Philly’s most unknown neighborhood. It only gets mentioned in the local news when a murder or other tragedy occurs. But it’s also one of the city’s more interesting neighborhoods; home to old-school Irish-Catholic families, a vibrant African-American community and a sizable population of Vietnamese and Cambodians.

But the greatest impact in Southwest Philadelphia has come from the influx of immigrants from Sierra Leone, Senegal and, in particular, Liberia. In fact, Southwest Philly has one of the highest population of native born Liberians in America, most of whom migrated to America to avoid the ruinous wars which devastated West Africa. The area around Woodland Avenue has become the center of Philadelphia’s African immigrant population, home to many restaurants and shops geared towards this population.

My friend Jon, a guy who lives to find the most under-the-radar food options in Philly, suggested that we take a trip to Southwest (as it’s called) to see what we could find.

Our discovery: Le Mandingue, located on the 6600 block of Woodland Avenue. From the street, Le Mandingue stands out; Southwest Philly’s commercial district is far from the most attractive in the city, but the exterior of Le Mandingue is bright and welcoming.

The interior is also inviting. Le Mandingue clearly knows its audience; the walls are adorned with advertisements for the many events in the local African community. To the right, Wolf Blitzer’s voice boomed off a pair of TVs. The French speaking workers were clearly surprised when we walked in; Le Mandingue probably doesn’t have too many white guys walking into the place on a regular basis. (“What do you want,” our waitress asked as we walked in.)

The employees, however, warmed up to us quickly. They took the time to give us Le Mandingue’s menu; the offerings changed day by day, but they still had their standards. Since we have had no experience with African food, we asked them for their recommendation.

Our waitress let out a big smile when we asked that. Another employee overheard us and joined the conversation; together, they decided upon serving us a fish dish and cassava leaves, a spinach-like vegetable mixed in with curry sauce and beef over rice.

Jon and I grabbed a can of Vitmo each, a very sweet fruit punch flavored soda, perfect for someone with a sweet tooth like myself. Our fish came out fairly quickly. It was tilapia, complete with fish head intact, served with fried plantains and a spicy sauce on the side. The tilapia had to be cut from the bone and had a nice, light flavor to it; however, when dipped into the sauce, it became a great dish. The plantains were also a nice touch, as their sweetness contrasted the hot flavors from the main course.

But the cassava leaves stole the show. Served like a stew, the meat was tender and easy to eat. The rice swallowed up the curry sauce. It wasn’t too long until we were both full.

After we talked for a little bit, we asked for the bill, which was an even $21.

Not bad for a trip to a little known part of the city; really good for the cuisine of a new culture making itself known in the City of Brotherly Love.




Le Mandingue is located on the 6600 block of Woodland Avenue. To get there from City Hall, go west on Market Street to 23rd. Make a left down 23rd. At the intersection with South Street, bear right onto Gray’s Ferry Avenue. Take Gray’s Ferry Avenue over the Schuylkill River to Woodland Avenue. Make a left onto Woodland and head south for 17 blocks. It will be on your left hand side.