BRONZEVILLE — Inside Yassa African Restaurant, families and groups of friends lingered over large plates of food. The owner's three small grandchildren played around the reception desk.
Strains of Mbalax, Senegalese pop music, played softly in the background as Madieye Gueye, the genial co-owner, greeted newcomers and explained the menu.
If this sounds like a scene from a neighborhood dinner party, that's exactly the point. Madieye and Awa Gueye are determined to bring the welcoming essence of Senegalese food and culture to Bronzeville. After a decade in Chatham, Yassa — one of two Senegalese restaurants in the city — recently relocated a few neighborhoods north.
“When we got here, we felt something different,” said Madieye Gueye of the restaurant's January move to 3511 S. King Drive.
“The neighborhood welcomed us. They came in and said, 'We're so happy to see you. It's about time we had a sit-down restaurant.' Because of Bronzeville's African-American history, we feel it's important to connect our African traditions to the African-American ones here. We come from the country of Teranga. It means 'the welcoming people' [in Senegal's Wolof language], and we treat the people who come to Yassa like they are in our home.”
With walls displaying bright murals and artwork, and tables covered with African prints, Yassa could pass for the dining room of a jet-setting aunt.
The menu, prepared by Awa Gueye, features hallmarks of Senegalese cuisine, including Tiebu Djen, the national dish. That's whole tilapia stuffed with parsley and herbs, cooked in tomato sauce and served over djolof (tomato-based) rice. There's also Maffe, which is cubes of lamb cooked in peanut butter and tomato sauce with potatoes, carrots and yams.
And there's also the restaurant's namesake dish Yassa, which is chicken marinated in lemon and spices over white rice.
Servings are so generous that carryout boxes seemed to fill every customer's hands as they left on a busy Saturday afternoon. Yassa's sunny room was packed continuously as people filed in to sample the dishes. Members of a book club occupied one long table, while foodies were seated at another.
It wasn't always this way.
At 11 p.m. on Nov. 2, 2014, the Gueyes got a call that there was a fire at the restaurant, which was then located on 79th Street.
“I was praying at home when I got the call. It was on the roof,” Madieye Gueye said.
For two months, the couple operated a temporary setup at Luversia's Soul Food Diner, located a few blocks away from their destroyed restaurant and the former home of the iconic Izola's on 79th Street.
“I told my wife, everything happens for a reason, we will see what happens. In life, there are things you control and things you don't,” said Madieye Gueye.
The couple opened Yassa in 2004. In 2007, a feature on “Check, Please!” attracted so many customers from all over the city that the Gueyes felt compelled to expand the restaurant.
But the number of customers started to decrease over the years: “When the violence on 79th started, everything slowed,” Awa Gueye said.
They were struggling just to break even when the fire opened the way for a new location and new opportunity.
“We were ready to start a new place. We knew we had the product; it's the location that can make the difference,” she said.
The Bronzeville community has offered consistent support, and an array of employees from Togo, Ivory Coast and Nigeria adds a richer perspective of the African continent, the Gueyes said.
“When someone comes to your house, they deserve attention,” said Madieye Gueye, as he swept his arm across the crowded room.
“You make people happy and then you're happy,” added Awa Gueye.”And then you're in business.”
Yassa African Restaurant at 3511 S. King Drive is open Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.; and Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10:20 p.m.; and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. 773-448-5599.
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