Jide Alao didn't start surfing until he was fifteen years old, when he and his family moved from Lagos, Nigeria, to the Rockaways. Right away, he fully embraced the scene at the surf-only stretch around Beach 69th Street, but as he told Hell Gate, "One summer, I realized there was something missing. There's no West African food here! Having this in the Rockaways would be amazing."
So in 2019, Alao, who grew up hanging out at his mom's restaurants back in Lagos, and his wife and business partner Pesy Sikyala started selling jollof rice bowls on the boardwalk from a food cart, which they supplanted the following year with a full-fledged brick-and-mortar counter service spot on Beach 96th Street called The Cradle NYC.
He was, in turns out, correct—having this cuisine out here is, indeed, amazing, and The Cradle is an excellent addition to a stacked line-up of rad beach food options.
Now entering its third summer in the original Rockaway Taco space, The Cradle serves a full menu of classic Nigerian dishes, led by a terrific egusi, a luxuriously thick West African stew whose rich flavors come from the namesake melon seed, plus locust beans, greens, crawfish, and dried fish. Alao also mixes in your choice of protein, and we opted for chicken. The best-sounding meaty add-on, "cow foot, goat meat, and beef tripe," had a $3 upcharge, which would have busted our $20 Dinner budget by a buck. But you go ahead and live it up, Rockefeller.
The egusi also comes with a starchy side of okele, and your choices here are either eba, which is made from cassava flour, or iyan, a gummy ball of pounded yam from which you pull off stretchy pieces with your hand to scoop up your stew.
You don't have to use your hands, of course; there are spoons and forks readily available at the counter. But as Alao told us, "When you eat with your hands, there's a sensual bond between you and the food. You can feel the heat of the food and the texture, so it's a lot more like your whole being is coming into play. That's the beauty of eating our food." To that end, he's installed a sink right by the outdoor dining area if you want to wash up before you dive in, fingers first.
All of the above can also be had with a spinach-forward stew called efo riro as the base, or with Alao's okra stew. You can also get one of the jollof rice bowls, piled high with sweet plantains, vinegary kale salad, or roasted broccoli, and your choice of salmon, chicken, or beef.
Alao said that the inclusion of kale salad in the jollof was initially met with derision among Rockaway's Nigerian community, but he's since seen social media posts by those same naysayers adding it to their home-cooked meals, so who's laughing now? As Alao put it, "I'm not saying I started a trend, but..."
The stews and the jollof bowls are all large, filling meals, so if you want something snackier, the yuca fries, samosas, or sweet puff-puffs are the move. Alao is proud of his juice and smoothie menu as well, the latter in flavors like Jack (jackfruit, spinach, mango, banana) and Peanut Vibes (starring peanut butter and blueberries). And watch for off-menu specials on Fridays this summer, which Alao promised would highlight "Nigerian street food, all the way, no modern twist, just authentic stuff."
The Cradle can also be found at the Riis Park concessions this season, and Alao said he plans on breaking out the cart again and showing up on the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan.
"We have a lot of regulars now," he said about his flagship on Beach 96th. "People were a little standoffish at first, but now they walk by and see a diverse group eating here, which brings a sense of belonging to everyone. Like, 'Oh, I can eat here too.' It's really been fun talking to people. I really enjoy feeding my community."
The Cradle is located at 194 Beach 96th Street, between Rockaway Beach Boulevard and the Atlantic Ocean, and is currently open on Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. (347-619-9120)