Egusi (melon-seed soup) is served with fish at Mama Philo's...

Egusi (melon-seed soup) is served with fish at Mama Philo's African Cuisine in Elmont. Credit: Newsday/Erica Marcus

For Philomena and Femi Alabi, opening a restaurant was a natural extension of their ministry, the Farmingdale-based Bethel of Praise. "As a pastor," Philomena said, "you are serving people, accommodating people, providing a place for the community — it’s the same here."

"Here" is the Alabis’ restaurant, Mama Philo’s African Cuisine, which opened in July in Elmont. Philomena presides over the large kitchen; her husband, Femi, handles the small dining room, takes phone orders and chats up customers in his sonorous baritone.

The couple met in New York but were both born in Nigeria. Philomena had long been cooking Nigerian dishes for church events and it was while they were looking in western Nassau for a second church location that they came upon the Linden Boulevard storefront that used to be a Little Caesars pizzeria. That was before the pandemic; with their religious services now mostly on Zoom, they decided to pivot from spiritual to corporeal nourishment.

Femi noted that there are no other African restaurants on Long Island (Taste of Africa in Deer Park, serving the cuisine of Ghana, closed in 2018.) "People had to drive all the way to Harlem or Brooklyn to get Nigerian food," he said. ‘They come in and are so happy we are here."

According to Femi, two dishes on the menu vie for the title of "most popular." Jollof rice, cooked in a flavorful, tomato-stained broth that gets its heat from Scotch bonnet peppers, is served with a choice of stewed meat or fried fish. Egusi is a hearty soup-stew, thickened with the ground melon seeds that give it its name. It is traditionally served with a ball of pounded yam, the flesh of an African yam that has been peeled, chopped, boiled and mashed until it becomes a smooth white paste. Instead of a spoon, you use knobs of pounded yam to scoop up the egusi.

Other Nigerian soups include ogbono (thickened with crushed wild mango seeds), spinach and okra. The menu also features big peppered snails (imported, frozen, from Africa), grilled whole fish and fried puff puff (dough balls). Most of the main dishes are well under $20 and can be enjoyed at one of the three tables in Mama Philo’s bright dining room or as takeout.

Mama Philo’s African Cuisine is at 237-05 Linden Blvd., Elmont, 516-400-9743, mamaphilos.com

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