On the sidewalk near M.L.K. Jr. Dr., “CHOW” written in yellow chalk with an arrow forward led me to an underground restaurant. Stories below the ground-level of Atlanta, I found a diverse community gathered at folding tables and chairs sharing a meal together.
I sat at a table with a group of strangers, all with different cultures and ethnicities. We bonded over good food and being directionally challenged in Atlanta.
“Sometimes you have to get lost to find yourself,” one of my new friends said, and we laughed.
This is Chow Club — an organization in Atlanta that features unique ethnic cuisine monthly made by immigrant and refugee chefs. The November theme was Nigerian cuisine. The club met at the bottom levels of Underground Atlanta, a shopping and entertainment district of the downtown section of Little Five Points, to eat food prepared by Nigerian immigrant and chef Wellington Onyenwe.
The idea for Chow Club started in 2017 when co-founder Amanda Plumb and her friends couldn’t find an Ethiopian restaurant on Buford Highway. Plumb reached out to Yohana Solomon, an Ethiopian immigrant, for recommendations elsewhere in Atlanta. Solomon recommended her own home.
Solomon shared authentic Ethiopian cuisine with Plumb and her friends but also told the stories behind the recipes. She even taught them how to eat each dish with their hands, the right way.
Plumb and Solomon made the intimate dinners a tradition and moved to Plumb’s house to open it to the public. They co-founded Chow Club and brought in chefs of different cultures and complete strangers to bond over unique cuisine. After a year in Plumb’s house, they needed to find new venues each month to host their growing community.
“We’re a country of immigrants and different cultures,” Plumb said. “There is a sense of community to sit down with total strangers, share a meal made by an immigrant and get to know each other.”
With Chow Club returning this fall after a brief hiatus during the height of the pandemic, Plumb and Solomon brought back an old friend to give Atlanta the Nigerian cuisine it lacks.
“I wanted to do [Chow Club] again because of how inviting and warm the environment always is,” Onyenwe said. “The people are jovial and open to trying new things.”
Onyenwe’s Nigerian chow menu featured his unique cuisine that blends the traditional tastes of Nigeria with southern and Caribbean flavors. Growing up in the countryside of Imo, Nigeria, in the village of Akpodim, Onyenwe learned traditional Nigerian cooking from his grandmother. In middle school, Onyenwe moved to the United States and bounced around the south before landing in Los Angeles, where he attended high school and college. At each stop, Onyenwe picked up different flavors to add to traditional Nigerian cuisine.
And there isn’t a better crowd to try out unique food than Chow Club. Before the first course, Onyenwe introduced his version of traditional chin chin, a deep-fried dough, as a soft shortbread cookie infused with West Nigerian lemon spices.
After the first course, the crowd gave Onyenwe a huge round of applause. “More food!” someone shouted from my table.
For the second course, Onyenwe continued to deliver to his audience. He cooked jollof rice and chicken suya over fire, just like they do in his village, to give it a traditional smoky flavor. More applause.
Onyenwe helped the audience pronounce the names of their delicious third course. Ofe okoro, a sticky okra stew, accompanied fufu, a plantain soufflé mash meant to be eaten by hand. Onyenwe brought it home with an Akpodim, a traditional spiced beef skewer with peppery, earthy and sweet flavors.
For dessert, we bit into chocolate truffles made with garri, or cassava flakes, covered in powdered sugar, chocolate or peanuts with a strong flavor of Ògógóró, Nigerian Palm Wine.
There were no left-overs. There never is at Chow Club.
Plumb hopes to promote Chow Club to Emory University students and show them a diverse community that defines Atlanta. Chow Club has an option for students to volunteer as a server with the advantage of invaluable time with the chef and the food.
“One of the real benefits of Emory is that you’re in a city of transplants,” Plumb said. “You would miss out on something great if you didn’t take advantage of the fact that Atlanta is a gateway to the world.”