Wah Gwan’s culinary cross-pollination will leave you speechless
Carve out time for Tanyech "Tan" Yarbrough's one-woman show
There’s this line from Act 2, Scene 3 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—you’ll probably recognize it even if you’ve never seen the show. “And though she be but little, she is fierce.” 16-month-old Wah Gwan presents a similar sentiment in the form of a Jamaican Patois phrase painted in round letters on the wall: “We likkle but we tallawah.”
The Jamaican/Nigerian spot embodies the contradiction. Wah Gwan (in Patois, “What’s up?”) is small and casual, with an ambitious menu of large-format entrées that rarely miss the mark. Chef-founder Tanyech “Tan” Yarbrough is an outsized presence, too, though that may just be the hats. Every time I entered the restaurant, she was wearing a different one: a black top hat with a patterned band. A beige Stetson. A Pharrell-style mountain hat. She looked natural in all of them—tallawah energy.
She wears just as many metaphorical hats. Wah Gwan has a small staff, but on weekdays, it’s not unusual to see Tan working alone. On one visit, she took my order (escovitch fish) at the corrugated aluminum counter, whisked back into the kitchen to prepare it, ran out the food, and bussed the table all on her own. If she was stressed balancing the steady trickle of diners that afternoon, she didn’t show it—she slipped in and out of each role with a chameleon’s native ease.
The one-woman show means meals can be a bit slower-paced, depending on what (and when) you order. My escovitch fish ($18.95) took about 30 minutes to arrive and was worth the wait. The whole fried red snapper came out sweet and succulent, with an exclamation point where vinegar-sparked bell peppers and onions kissed its skin. Still, I wanted a bolder, heavier-handed sauce, with a few more Scotch bonnets in the pickle mix—the version I tried was very mild.
On a weekday dinner visit, Tan was again working the kitchen alone—and the food, again, was a bit slow out of the kitchen. This is less of a complaint than a warning for the time-strapped. Model your visit after the oxtail ($20.95), which has been slow-braised until it’s so tender, it’ll fall off the bone at a wilting remark. The meat is sticky and rich, balanced by a heap of comforting rice and peas (red kidney beans). Or take a cue from a slangy Nigerian proverb painted on the wall: “cow wey dey in a hurry to go America go come back as corn beef,” meaning, “Just be patient. Let the game come to you.”
Tan and her family have built a dining room you don’t mind dawdling in. The restaurant—part of a small strip of businesses at 63rd and Troost—is small but lively, with mustard-colored walls and bright printed fabrics on the tables and chairs. Tall plants divide the dining room into sections, creating privacy for tables while preserving a communal feel. Most days, a large-screen TV plays buoyant music videos from Afrobeat artists like Burna Boy and KiDi.
Wah Gwan’s casual vibe, counter ordering, and hours (11 a.m. to 7 p.m. most days) feel tailor-made for the lunch crowd. But the sprawling menu doesn’t quite match that tone. Most entrées are larger and pricier, with few options for those looking for a quick, light bite. Even the jerk chicken ($14.95) feels a little formal, plated with a mound of rice and peas, steamed cabbage, and chubby coins of plantain. (The menu warns that the chicken is spicy, however the mahogany spice paste on my bird was warming but mild.)
The Jamaican beef patties ($2.95) come closest to bridging the lunch-dinner gap. The flat, turmeric-yellow hand pies are pre-made and kept warm in a case behind the counter for easy access. They’re also delicious, with a flaky shell and saucy, spicy filling. For a quick snack or starter, the patties are a bargain.
The drinks cooler behind the counter contains a small selection of top-tier Jamaican sodas—Pink Ting, D&G Pineapple-Ginger—which beat American sodas in both taste and branding. The D&G logo features a jowly cat wearing sunglasses and swim trunks. Dr. Pepper could never. But your best bet is in the unmarked carafe, which contains sorrel ($2.95)—a housemade, slightly tannic hibiscus drink infused with ginger and cinnamon sticks. Besides tasting like Christmas in July, the drink also neatly bridges the restaurant’s Caribbean and Nigerian dishes (sorrel is popular in Nigeria, too, where it’s better known as zobo).
Perhaps in deference to cross-cultural pollination, you can order any entrée at Wah Gwan, regardless of its provenance, with Nigerian jollof rice or Jamaican rice and peas. The jollof is spice-rouged and tomato-savory, with green beans and carrots soft enough to melt into the rice. It’s also a natural accompaniment for the lightly charred beef suya ($19.95 as an entrée; $2.95 for a single skewer). The thin-sliced steak is well-spiced in the topographical sense: each piece is powder-coated in ground chiles and peanuts.
I was excited to order the egusi, a popular Nigerian soup that can be tough to find locally. The melon seeds were ground to a soft, curdled texture and bathed in red palm oil, with a nutty richness and heady proto-funk likely to appeal to natural wine nerds. But when I tried it, the broth was overly salty with tough hunks of bone-in goat that needed a longer stewing.
Don’t write off the goat dishes based on that description. The curry goat ($14.95) was silky and rich, thanks to an unexpected wash of coconut milk. Although Wah Gwan officially offers the curry goat only on Fridays, it doesn’t hurt to ask—I snagged a portion on a Tuesday.
If the menu feels a little overstuffed, the trade-off is that it’s also more inclusive. In addition to Greatest Hits from Jamaica and Nigeria, the menu also has a small section of vegetarian dishes, including veggie patties ($2.95) and Rasta pasta ($9.95), peppery penne mossed with fresh thyme and Parmesan cheese.
Your best bet is the honey garlic tofu ($12.95), which was a sleeper hit. Each tofu cube had a chewy crust and fluffy middle, swaddled just so in a balanced sauce that was sweet but not cloying, glossy but not soupy. It would be easy to phone in a dish like this. Instead, it’s one of the menu’s standouts.
I inhaled that tofu like I’d inhaled the oxtail, picking its metaphorical bones clean. My friends did the same with their curry goat and beef suya. The wait had been long—the food arrived a few minutes past the restaurant’s closing—but we made up for lost time.
It was one of those rare meals with friends where you barely talk because the experience of eating is so loud. Done well, gluttony demands an athlete’s focus.
When Tan came out of the kitchen to check on us, she saw only empty plates. “Oh, you guys didn’t need to rush!” she said. “I’m just cleaning back there.”
I looked sheepishly at my friends. It hadn’t occurred to me that we had been rushing.