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Review: Liberian Merry Go Round offers comforting culinary experience

The cassava leaves at Liberian Merry Go Round combines chicken, beer and mackerel in an ethnic comfort food dish. Eric Daeuber / The Forum1 / 2
The tilapia is fried whole and mild if served with the hot pepper sauce on the side. Dried rice accompanies the fish. Eric Daeuber / The Forum2 / 2

Liberian Merry Go Round raises some questions.

Why is it called Merry Go Round? No answer to that one.

What does Joseph — cook, server and owner — mean when he says that the pepper sauce on the tilapia, also served with a number of other dishes, is pretty hot? That question I can fill you in on. It's pretty hot. I mean it's scotch bonnet, country-music-bbq-should-be-ashamed-of-itself hot. Ask for the sauce on the side. The food here is really good. The serving sizes are enormous and the feeling that you are being fed the same comfort foods you would be eating if you had been raised in Nigeria or Ghana or Liberia by a mother who loved you is very much a part of the experience at Liberian Merry Go Round.

Just the name jollof rice can make a lot of people feel warm and wanted inside. So that's a place to start. It's tomato-based, mild and about as basic a starch as you can find.

Two places to go on your African culinary journey — dried rice and fish ($14) and cassava leaves ($14). Both are staples and a good introduction to a new kind of dining if this isn't your family's usual take on comfort foods.

The tilapia is fried whole, and mild if it's served without the pepper sauce; it's moist, firm and pulls easily away from the bones. And white as snow.

The rice is loose, comfortably spiced — even delicate — and can be brought to any level on the Scoville scale with a dab of pepper sauce. What's more, it's attractive and almost exotic looking.

The cassava leaves are a bit more mysterious; if you are the sort that needs to identify ingredients one from another, this dish will be a challenge. Opting for the red palm oil doesn't make it any more clear, but it does add quite a bit of flavor to what might otherwise tend to the bittersweet.

Inside the stew, things are a little less obvious. Chicken, beef and mackerel share the space but, as is the case for most ethnic comfort foods, these dishes are about flexibility. An open mind and a willingness to taste rather than look may be in order for some of these dishes.

The same qualification concerning open mindedness and a willingness to be a bit adventurous applies to service and ambiance, too. Service is good but slow. Rather, the dishes are slow to come out. But the wait is worth it for the food.

It's not really worth it for the atmosphere which is disjointed and seems pieced together with televisions that are, at some times, too loud and always a bit distracting. It's relaxed in so many ways. The phone may not get answered and the credit card machine may not work. So be prepared.

A question that should be easy to answer is why you should try visiting Liberian Merry Go Round. It's an easily accessible experience from another part of the world that many in Fargo and Moorhead are not familiar with. And it's fast becoming a much larger part of the neighborhood. It's worth getting acquainted.

Liberian Merry Go Round

Address: 855 45th St. S., Fargo

Cuisine: West African

Food: 3.5 stars

Service: 3 stars

Ambiance: 1 star

Dining details

Hours: Monday to Sunday 10:00AM to 12AM

Phone: (215) 909-1946

Reservations accepted: No

Alcohol: No

Credit cards accepted: Yes

Eric Daeuber is an instructor at Minnesota State Community and Technical College. Readers can reach him at food@daeuber.com.

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