The Real Deal

A Little Taste of Senegal


by Farnoosh Torabi, Special to amNewYork,

March 26, 2007

On a recent Saturday at noon on 116th Street, the midday prayer call from the Masjid Salam mosque echoed down the block stretching from Frederick Douglas Boulevard to Seventh Avenue. The chanting sound continuously serves asbackground music for one of New York's most diverse districts, Little Senegal.
            It is a working class community comprised of thousands of immigrants, a majority Muslim, from Senegal, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Mali and other parts of West Africa. It was made famous after the 1992 film Little Senegal, which offered an intimate look at the area and its people.
            Forty-five-year-old Fatoy Kiné Mar has been in the district since the early 1990s. The Senegal immigrant owns the widely popular Africa Kiné restaurant on 256 W. 166th. "All I know is cooking and I'm really good at it," said Mar, speaking through a translator, her nephew and restaurant manager Allasane
            The mom of four first began making a culinary name for herself in Harlem in 1992, while selling homemade African dishes on 125th Street from her street cart. The money she saved from that business coupled with her following of food fans, helped Mar officially open Africa Kiné in 1996. "By that time I was really busy," said Mar. "It was always my thought to open my own restaurant," she said speaking both French and Ouolof (or Wolof), a Senegalese dialect.
            The most requested dish at the restaurant is the first item on the menu, Thiebu Djeun, a fish and rice dish cooked with various vegetables. On busier nights, the eatery seats some 100 diners and it's not just Africans ordering; Mar has witnessed an increase in visitors just Africans ordering; Mar has witnessed an increase in visitors from all parts of the world, particularly white professionals from downtown Manhattan that are slowly but surely making Harlem their new home. "In two, three years, it's all going to change," said Mar, reflecting on the economic and demographic shift West Harlem is experiencing.
            Indeed, Little Senegal, much like many parts of Upper Manhattan has evolved over the past 20 years; crime has dropped dramatically, more entrepreneurs have started businesses and the resident population has further diversified, as young, white professionals make their way uptown to take advantage of new real estate opportunities in the area.
            For example, a luxury apartment building is currently renting units a couple doors down from Africa Kiné. "Ten years ago, I remember a one-bedroom went for $600, now its like $1200 or $1300," said Djigal. "The spirit of the neighborhood has changed a lot, too," he added. "You used to always think about your safety. Now you can walk out anytime."
            The changes have started to take some toll on Mar, who is concerned about renewing her lease when the restaurant's current five-year contract expires next year. As of now, she is paying close to $8,000 a month, but Mar is toying with the idea of buying the space, if not next year, then someday down the road.
She's also exploring new revenue streams, for example using the upstairs level as a function room for catering events and parties.
            Mar is determined to stay in the neighborhood. The business may have to go under a few changes, she said, but the flavor of the restaurant will go untouched. She hopes to pass down Africa Kiné to her youngest children.

Copyright 2007 Newsday Inc.