By Lillian Lema | Photos Mark Mattos
Oga Suya, a Nigerian street food enterprise co-owned by the husband-and-wife team of Young Francis and Rose Barboza, has joined Portland’s hopping contemporary food scene with a presence at Portland Zoo on Fox Street in East Bayside/Munjoy Hill. Nigerian suya is a West African form of barbecued meats, grilled on kebab sticks, that originated with the Hausa tribe of Nigeria but has since migrated far from their region – and now even as far as Portland.
Since its opening, Oga Suya has attracted a loyal following of both locals and visitors who crave authentic dishes that transport them to a different country. This is obviously fantastic for a young restaurant, but does not come without challenges. “We’ve gained popularity in a way that we hoped to in the future, but didn’t imagine that it would happen this soon. I think it is because Young knows how to cook. He knows what he is doing,” Barboza said.
Francis grew up in Nigeria surrounded by a big family, where food played a significant role in his upbringing. He worked in restaurants growing up, and his skills and passion for cooking – combined with Barboza’s business savvy – are a winning combination. “Young is just an amazing chef. Since we’ve met, I just don’t cook anymore. … He carefully blends a mix of spices and peanuts to create a nutty, smoky, and spicy flavor that is unmatched,” said Barboza.
Expansion is a possibility in the future, but the couple want to make sure that the current homey and welcoming environment isn’t lost. They want Oga Suya to be characterized by a family feel – “seriously family vibes,” in Barboza’s words. And managing Oga Suya alongside Barboza’s and Francis’ other responsibilities is challenging. Barboza, a Lewiston native, is the founder and CEO of Black Owned Maine, the nonprofit she founded in 2020, as well as her consulting firm. Francis and Barboza are also busy as parents of their five-year-old son, whom they bring to Oga Suya whenever they can, so he is able to spend time with his parents and see what they are doing. And along with the pop-up location at Portland Zoo Thursdays through Mondays, Oga Suya offers catering. “We are constantly getting requests for events, so we need to figure out how we can double up with staff and be at two places at once, or we have to turn people down,” Barboza said.
As Oga Suya continues to grow, the owners would like to open a permanent location, such as a lounge, where the public can enjoy a delicious meal and have a great time, and also continue to offer catering. “We really would like to become a household name where people know they can come to Oga Suya and get an authentic experience they can’t get anywhere else,” she said.
Barboza advises other BIPOC and immigrant entrepreneurs to take their time, gain as much knowledge as they can in their business field, and network, reach out to Black Owned Maine and, most importantly, be passionate about what they are doing. “We wanted to create a business that would fill a void that customers didn’t think needed to be filled,” Barboza said.
The restaurant originated at home. One day Francis commented to Barboza that he was interested in making suya, and although she wasn’t familiar with the food, she encouraged him. “I was amazed. It was the best food I had ever tried in my life!” she said. Their young son was also pleased by the Nigerian street food. To test the waters, they decided to host small gatherings with friends and family to see how others would react to suya. “It just took off, and it was all by word of mouth.”.
Before starting Oga Suya, Barboza and Francis went to a couple of restaurants on the East Coast that offered suya. However, these places did not make suya the main attraction in their menus, and Barboza and Francis felt it was being overshadowed by the other dishes. Keeping the authenticity of Nigerian street suya meant keeping it simple, full of flavor, and available for on-the-go dining. “That’s why we don’t serve food where you have to sit and eat. We wanted to keep that true street food influence,” she explained. “Everything is cooked to order. It takes some time, but you know you can just eat it in your car, or on the road.”
The preparation at Oga Suya includes marinating beef, chicken, or shrimp in a dry rub – which involves a secret ingredient, ground nuts, dried peanuts, paprika, garlic, and other spices. “It isn’t anything crazy or ingredients you haven’t heard of before. It is just the manner in which they are blended together, the proportions, the ratios that are unique,” Barboza said.
The menu also includes “Party Jollof,” a spin on traditional jollof, made with long-grain rice, tomatoes, onions, spices, vegetables, and meat in a single pot. Oga Suya’s “Party Jollof” is smoky and includes the crunchy, burnt rice pieces that are found at the bottom of the pot. This adds texture to the jollof and a “party” of flavors in the customer’s mouth – all resulting in appetites satisfied.
“When we started cooking [Party Jollof] at the Food Lab, fellow cooks would say, ‘Something is wrong … the rice was burning so we stirred it for you.’ … [but] you weren’t supposed to stir it. You’re just supposed to let it cook until there is an inch of burnt crusted rice. At first they didn’t trust it, but then they tried it and were impressed,” Barboza said.
On Sundays, the menu includes a special item such as a grilled whole fish, or peppery turkey wings cooked in a special sauce. Everything on the menu is grilled except the fried rice and roasted poultry legs. Since it is all cooked fresh, the wait time can be as much as 30 minutes. However, Barboza says the food and vibes are worth the wait.
“We aren’t a fast-food place. We want people to come chill, smell the food, have a drink, and hang out with their friends. It’s a party,” she said.