Photo: ET Rodriguez. Balimaya storefront on Third Avenue off E. 138th street.

Next door to the gas station on Third Avenue near 138th Street in Mott Haven, a small and unassuming West African restaurant that is a long-time favorite of grave-shift taxi drivers and late-night partygoers pumps out a minimalist menu with maximum flavor.

Inside Balimaya, a Nelson Mandela poster hangs on the wall, along with one of Barack Obama and one depicting images of revered African political leaders.  Three small tables seating two or four people fill the space.  A brick foundation supports the food counter, where most transactions take place.

Customers spotted on one weekday ordered their food in French — a sign of return business. But mostly everyone takes their food to go, as did I.

The food is served cafeteria style. I spot whole fish, a must for me. “What kind of fish is that?”

“Tilapia,” the woman behind the counter replies.  I order the fish with a side of plantains.

In addition to its standard lamb, chicken and fish, specialties, Balimaya offers several sides, including the newly viral, yet traditional staple of West African cuisine, fufu.

The food is still piping hot by the time I get home. I typically avoid tilapia, but theirs is served whole and the word “tasty” is an understatement. The tilapia is fried, but not dried out, and served with a medley of onions, peppers and carrots. The aromatics are simply kissed with fire; enough to rid them of their raw bite while maintaining their crunch.

The fish is meaty, tender and falls right off the bones. It is so good I even eat the eyeballs, which can be hit or miss when eating out.

The plantains are deep fried and sweet, but unlike the Caribbean-style sweet plantains, which tend to be very soft and almost mushy, these are toothsome. I eat ravenously with my fingers and the dish is served with a condiment like no other.  I keep dipping the plantains into this sauce while scouring my brain for words to describe it.

When I re-visit the restaurant the following day, there is a gentleman sitting at a table wearing glasses and a baseball cap and a cheerful young woman standing behind the transparent counter. They are father and daughter; Saguidi Fofana and Mariaou Diawara, respectively.

Desperately curious, I ask Diawara, “What is the sauce?”

“Hot sauce,” she replies.

“Is there mustard in it?”

Diawara says, yes, and then proceeds to list the ingredients in the sauce until her father, Fofana, interrupts her.  I gather that he is telling her not to give away the recipe. Fofana turns to me and before he can say anything, I chuckle and tell him, “It’s okay, I understand.”

I linger, they get comfortable. They tell me they are from the Ivory Coast and that it is a family-run business. When I ask who the manager is, Fofana says, “Everyone. I manage. My daughter manage [sic] . . .It’s family.” 

Balimaya means essence of kinship, in Maninka. The restaurant has been in business for 13 years and when I ask the father-daughter duo what they believe is the reason for Balimaya’s success, Mariamou responds, “God.”

The restaurant’s motto is apparent in the kindness and smiles of the staff.

I ask about the 24-hour sign on their awning. Diawara mentions that since the pandemic, there has been no incentive to be open all hours. However, she hopes that the balmy summer nights see the return of the night owls.

Balimaya is located at 2535 Third Avenue, and is open from noon – 10:30pm, seven days a week, and will soon return to 24-hour service. They can be reached at 718-401-1122.

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