The Suya Spot, and the story of its founder, Taiwo Ajala, is a Toronto dream told in three acts. In the first part, Ajala’s parents move here from Nigeria in the mid-1960s to study. His father learns printing at Ryerson, while his mother gets a degree in hospitality from George Brown. They live in Regent Park, the neighbourhood where Ajala and his siblings were born, and Taiwo spends the first six years of his life playing street hockey and doing the other things kids in Toronto do.
Act two starts in 1978, when Ajala’s father is offered a good government job back in Nigeria, and the whole family returns. Tragically, the father dies in a car accident eight years later, leaving Ajala and his siblings destitute and under the sole care of their mother. “Being a single mother in Africa was the worst place you could be in the world,” says Ajala, without a trace of hyperbole.
The family survived by selling food. Ajala’s mother opened two simple restaurants in the northern Nigerian city where they lived, and the children all pitched in, cooking from the time they were 14. “It wasn’t something we wanted to do,” says Ajala, “but we were forced to learn how to cook after dad died. You weren’t going to stay home while your mother was cooking.”
In 1996, after graduating from university with an accounting degree, Ajala returned to Toronto (his siblings and mother would all eventually follow), setting in motion the third act of his story. “Here, you can put in your efforts and see the results,” he says, noting how corrupt Nigeria had become. He spent a few years working in telecom sales, but his real passion came when he was cooking suya for friends at his Oshawa house.
Suya is Nigerian barbecue, as synonymous with that country’s cuisine as yakitori is to the Japanese and churrasco to the Portuguese. Originally devised by the Hausa Fulani cattle-herding tribes in the country’s north a century ago, the spicy, flame-licked meat skewers are a frequent roadside attraction across Nigeria.
In 2005, Ajala opened the Suya Spot as a small takeout counter at Keele and Lawrence. It proved so popular that, in 2008, he moved the restaurant to a larger space, on Weston Road, north of Sheppard, where it remains today.
The menu offers up a selection of suya, from chicken, goat, and turkey gizzards to a mixed grill of offal cuts. But the standout suya, and the most popular, is beef. Shoulder steaks are sliced paper thin and marinated for 24 hours in a rub called tankora, which includes crushed peanuts, grated ginger, plenty of salt, and a fiery mix of cayenne and paprika. The meat is grilled over an open flame (gas at the restaurant; wood charcoal at catered events), chopped up into thin strips, and served next to slivers of raw red onion, tomato, shredded cabbage, and a spicy pepper powder packed with cayenne.
The first bite is an intense rush of flavour—the heady aroma of the ginger meets the carbon sizzle of the grill, giving way to caramelized ribbons of melted fat and the tingle of the spice rub. It’s incredibly tender, and, as Ajala says, “You’re always trying to chase the aftertaste, because of the peanuts. You instantly want more.”
It’s pure, unabashed carnivore’s food, and the mixed suya is a sure bet for dyed-in-the-wool offal eaters, with its pungent kidneys, tender hunks of bone-in goat meat, and thin squares of tripe, grilled to the point where they’re just crispy enough, but still silky. This really is finger-lickin’ food, begging to be eaten by hand.
Suya Spot opens each day at 2 p.m., building its schedule around traditional suya dining time, which begins with a flood of after-work takeout orders, and continues on into raucous late nights. The restaurant has evolved into a sort of community centre, with two makeshift lounges that host numerous events and visitors from the city’s growing African community (there are more than 10,000 Nigerians in the GTA). On Fridays, African lawyers come to debate politics and soccer over suya, while Saturday brings in Afrobeat tunes, Nollywood movies (from Nigeria’s bustling film industry), and after-parties for visiting musicians, such as P-Square, a Nigerian R&B duo whose fans packed Suya Spot recently, with hundreds waiting in the parking lot just to get in. “We’ve been able to bring Africa closer together,” says Ajala, with pride. “We’ve created togetherness. That’s what we’re known for.”
If all goes according to his plan, suya will become as popular as jerk chicken. Last summer, a partner opened a Suya Spot franchise in Ottawa, and Ajala is finalizing a location in downtown Toronto for later this year. “Suya is a social food,” Ajala says, noting how it’s never eaten alone. “It’s the type of food that a friend can come up and take a bite of.”
Suya Spot, 3212 Weston Rd., 416-742-7892.