(One of the most requested Ghanaian meals at Yendidi Restaurant is Beans Stew and fried sweet plantains AKA “Red Red or Gob3.” Photo courtesy of Yendidi.)

By Marisa Marsey

Opening a restaurant is tough. Harder still in a pandemic. Near impossible when your menu might not offer an easy familiarity. But with diligence and deliciousness, Yendidi Restaurant and Naci’s Corner Café have hurdled the odds, attracting meat-eaters and vegans alike by graciously sharing cuisines that, while rooted in separate continents, employ a common ingredient: love.

West African Wonder

In chef-owner Josephine “Abena” Oteng-Appiah’s Twi dialect, yendidi means “let’s eat” and you’ll find the phrase compulsory at her thus-named restaurant, redolent with the fresh ginger, garlic, onions, basil, star anise and fennel emblematic of her native Ghana’s vibrant fare. But now you’ll also want to chime in with “let’s drink” as the fun-sized Norview Heights hotspot introduced a bar just in time for the new year.

Elixirs including a velvety piña colada riff starring sobolo, a tart beverage made from brewing dried hibiscus, and “pinger,” a zingy juice of pineapple and ginger jaunty with Jack Daniels, augment the non-alcoholic offerings and craftily complement orders such as rich coconut rice with tomato basil stew; rosemary-scented jollof rice; mouthwatering, oven-grilled goat; pepper-sauced tilapia; Scotch bonnet-spiced fried chicken; and turkey bathed in herbs.

Drinks to mark occasions are fitting, for every day at Yendidi feels like a celebration, a reason to feast. Abena describes the vibe as “a family-centered environment built on love, respect, humility and togetherness” where family means everyone, “no matter who you are and where you’re from.” She modeled the restaurant’s cookery after what she and her husband enjoy at home, food that leads to “happy hearts and lips.”

At the start, she offered two menus: an anthology of authentic West African favorites interwoven with elements of other cuisines during the week, reserving the most traditional dishes such as waakye (street-food rice and beans), seafood okro (likely part of gumbo’s origins) and fufu (a plantain and cassava flour-based staple, best eaten with your hands by pinching off a doughy ball and dipping it in soup or stew) for weekends. But since a successful rollout, she has fused them, and now everything is available whatever the day. She cautions, though, that fresh food takes time, and advises that guests don’t expect to rush when picking up or dining in (by reservation only during Covid).

Abena and her staff, whom she gushes are “a happy, joyful, lovable team,” arrive early each morning to start the labor-intensive preparations. They represent not just Ghana but also the Dominican Republic, Congo and more. The clientele, too, spans borders and oceans, and it’s not unusual to hear someone speaking in their mother tongue, perhaps Hausa or Ewe, between y’alls.

“I want to communicate with people through food,” says Abena, and that language inspires and lifts. Upon biting into buttery fried shrimps, more than one diner has broken into ecstatic shakes, sways and shimmies.

Culture pulses throughout, be it from spontaneous sing-alongs erupting in the kitchen to an occasional saxophone player, right down to mancala (pit and stone) games on hand. One, oware, translates to he/she marries. Legend has it that a man and woman were so enthralled by its strategic challenge, they resorted to marriage to be able to stay together and continue playing. As Abena imparts the lore, it sounds prophetic. How easy to imagine someone falling in love with Yendidi, and never wanting to leave.

5800 Chesapeake Blvd., Norfolk. 757-995-1988. Open Tues.-Fri. from 11 am to 8 pm and Sat. & Sun. from noon to 8 p.m. Delivery and catering available. yendidirestaurant.com

Mediterranean Marvel

Hugs often top the list of what people miss most in these socially-distanced days. But you can get a figurative one at Naci’s Corner Café, where Jale Evsen’s effusive hospitality simulates the most affectionate of maternal embraces. “Traditionally in Turkey, even if your worst enemy walks in, you open the door and welcome them,” she explains.

She takes the custom a step further, turning everyone who enters her little Mediterranean eatery, situated behind Doumar’s, into friends. She radiates warmth to newcomers as she deciphers dishes like mercimek çorbasi (red lentil soup) and karniyarik  (stuffed eggplant), slips an extra piece of baklava into orders for repeat customers, and ensures everyone – at tables inside and out, beneath sunshine-yellow umbrellas – is contented.

Jale named Naci’s after her late husband, who first harbored the dream of a café. An architect, he hailed from an Aegean fishing village north of Ephesus, where she was born. Though raised in Germany, she traces her lineage to the Turkic people. “My mother grew up on horseback,” she says. “So I used to tease Naci that I was more Turkish, because his ancestors came from the Balkans only a couple generations back.”

While this valentine to him is considered quick-serve (order at the counter, pay up front), she’s made it a home, filled with popular jazzy remixes of Turkish folk songs, identifiable by its colorful outdoor mural of Turkish totems: steaming tea and tulips. Supported by the tiniest of staffs, she’s somehow everywhere at once, cooking, manning the register, brewing the thick, iconic coffee.

Her ardor emerges in the meticulous chopping of vegetables (“I can’t just buy a bunch of canned things,” she insists, making nearly everything from scratch) and tender stretching of phyllo dough for börek, a savory pastry. It’s reflected in the way she carefully concocts her forest kebab featuring pan-fried chicken, sautéed portobellos, potatoes, carrots, peas, peppers, béchamel sauce and grated cheese. One son declares it’s going to get her a Michelin star.

When her regulars begged her to reveal her kitchen secrets, she started selling a few ingredients so they could attempt to replicate Naci’s flavors at home. Key among them is the Turkish extra virgin olive oil she sources from a New Jersey importer. “Better olive oil comes from ripe olives,” she explains. “Not the early harvest marketers promote.” She would know. She and Naci farmed olives in Turkey for six years.

Her clientele return Jale’s passion with gifts of flowers and baked goods. Upon noticing that Naci’s didn’t have the amulet to ward off evil called a nazar (Jale’s is in storage), they gave her one. And they heartily approve of her new partner in life, John Wright, whom she met when his company installed the café’s plumbing. “I’m so grateful to my customers,” she says. “They welcomed me with open arms.”

1900 Granby St., Norfolk. 757-622-2226. Open Mon. & Tues. only for takeout lunch, Wed. & Thurs. from 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Fri. & Sat. from 11:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Delivery available. cafencaci.com