The Real Africa

Irie Zulu offers a fascinating, exhilarating journey through the cuisines of Africa and Jamaica.

Yollande Deacon’s sisters, Fanny and Pierre, welcome guests into the glowing, intimate dining room of Irie Zulu, Deacon’s Wauwatosa restaurant. The patterned lampshades, bright walls and striking artwork make the small space feel animated. The sisters all dress in striking batik-like garments and headpieces from their home country, Cameroon. Deacon, who came to Milwaukee in 2001 to pursue a master’s degree in business administration at Marquette University, considers herself “credible” as a gastronomic teacher, not because she was born in Africa, but because “I research it and know what I’m talking about.”

She says it with the same gumption she brings to her other business, Afro Fusion Cuisine. “I want people to eat and think about the meaning behind the food.”

Jamaican jerk wings with Afro Fusion Jamaican jerk sauce. Photo by Chris Kessler.
Jamaican jerk wings with Afro Fusion Jamaican jerk sauce. Photo by Chris Kessler.

In 2012, Afro Fusion – purveyor of African and Jamaican spices, sauces and sausages – grew out of Deacon’s work organizing food stands for local festivals. And the stands grew out of her interest in sharing the cuisines of Africa in a city where she’d long struggled to find ingredients needed to make the dishes she missed from her homeland. 

Irie Zulu (the first word is Jamaican for “cool,” while “Zulu” refers to a specific African tribe) originally was intended to be home base for the growing needs of Afro Fusion. From a tasting room for the spices and their companion wares, the business plan evolved into a restaurant – a multiplatform enterprise where customers can also buy Afro Fusion products and take cooking classes. (Deacon also caters events sells products at venues like Milwaukee County Winter Farmer’s Market.)

A complicating factor is Deacon’s approach to the menu. More than 50 countries make up the African continent. Every week since the restaurant’s opening in November, she has featured the cuisines of various parts of the continent. On Fridays and Saturdays, the menu is Jamaican, the nationality of Deacon’s husband. The content of the menu isn’t set until the night before it’s served, she says. The cookbook aficionado is a voracious reader who administrates several African social media cooking forums, which she uses for feedback and ideas.

It’s a provocative menu for diners who like to explore and “open themselves up to be surprised,” Deacon says. And it’s a remarkable menu for people who appreciate flavor. Wisco ingredients and seasonal considerations play their role, too. 

On a night when West African food is the featured attraction, we start with flaky, tender West African hand pies, brilliant little pastries we dunk in tomato-based joloff sauce. Glasses of fresh ginger juice half-drained, we move on to peanut butter stew with chicken, the creamy, mellow sauce absorbing the delicate grains of coconut rice. Poulet DG (which stands for “Directeur Général”) is sister Fanny’s favorite dish. The dish fuses chicken, plantains, carrots, tomatoes and onions in a mild, soothing stew.

Another king of thick sauces – served here with foo foo (a mash made from cassava flour) or jasmine rice – is the West African stew called egusi (melon or pumpkin seeds used as a thickener), with its chunky spinach-tomato sauce masking shrimp and pieces of grass-fed beef.

Deacon’s frequent presence in the dining room, chatting amiably with diners, is one of the ways she’s helping cement Irie Zulu’s presence on this melting pot of North America. ◆

Irie Zulu 
7237 W. North Ave., Tosa, 414-509-6014. 

Hours: Dinner Tues-Sat. 

Prices: Entrées $17-$25. 

This dining review appears in the Dine Out Pocket Guide in the April 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.