NEW YORK — There are three levels of heat in the spice rubs at Brooklyn Suya, starting with mild, which is in fact hot. Not too hot, just enough to open the pores and bring a faint sheen to the skin. It’s the next level up that slows you down, insists you take your time and pause every few bites.
The highest level says stop. The mouth turns to kindling. A small sun is born.
“Are you sure?” the woman behind the counter said doubtfully when I requested the highest. “Me, I stick to the lowest.”
In Nigeria, suya is street food: meat cut thin, slapped with a dry spice rub dominated by ginger, peanuts and chiles, then skewered and charred on an often improvised grill and handed over in newspaper gone dark with oil.
So it feels right to eat it on the street in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, even on the most brutal of summer days, sitting hunched at the lone teetering, tiny table on the sidewalk. Brooklyn Suya opened here as a pop-up in August; the owners, Hema Agwu and Folusho Adeyemo, signed a lease in February.
But this isn’t rough-and-ready suya. Sirloin steak, chicken breast, shrimp, eggplant or tofu is laid over rice — sometimes suffused with coconut milk, sometimes curry — and crowded around with bright orbs of cherry tomatoes, cucumber, onion in purple swoops and raw kale, standing in for Nigerian gabage (cabbage).
To serve it, Agwu, the chef, deploys that easy weapon of today’s fast-casual restaurants, the bowl — a clever way of enticing diners unfamiliar with the cuisine. Each bowl comes with a choice of sides, all dedicated to countering the heat: more kale, with its touch of bitterness; creamy avocado and hard-boiled egg; grilled ripe plantains with their sugars coaxed out.
Suya is traditionally steak, and that’s the best here, showing off the full power of the spice. The meat is patted down with the least spicy rub and left to brood for 12 hours, then smoked and grilled. More spice, untempered, is added at the end, which is where the heat comes in.
Squeeze bottles of peanut aioli and oversweet barbecue sauce stand by, should yet more flavor be required. It isn’t.
Sometimes customers of Nigerian descent balk at all the fuss. “They’re surprised,” Agwu said. For them, he offers “just suya”: steak with no accompaniment beyond tomatoes and onions, “to cool you off,” he said.
Suya spice has no single recipe, and Agwu keeps his 16-ingredient formula close. Asked if he used peanuts or kuli-kuli — roasted peanut paste stripped of oil, then fried into gold — he said, demurring: “I can only tell you that there are peanuts in it.”
Agwu grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, and came to the United States with his family when he was 14, settling on Long Island. “My mother tricked me into cooking,” he said, recalling how he boiled his first pot of rice at age 8.
After graduating from college with a degree in political science, Agwu ran a suya spot on Long Island for a year then experimented with pop-up dinners in the city. Eventually he reinvented himself as the “Suya Guy,” selling suya at festivals where he delivered a Salt Bae-esque flourish of desert-red spice from on high.
He teamed up with Adeyemo last year and landed at this shallow storefront, once a tattoo parlor and later a high-end hot dog joint. The mural on the back wall, of the 3 train, persists from an earlier time, along with a red gate at the end of the counter warning: “Do not enter or cross tracks.” (By coincidence, Agwu recently took a side job as a train operator for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.)
The Nigerian name for suya spice is yaji, which is how Agwu labels his theoretically medium-hot mix; mild he calls miya, the word for sauce or spice in Hausa, and hot is ose, pepper in Igbo, both local languages. All are for sale by the jar.
Two even-hotter levels of spice mix, nameless, are hidden behind the counter, their existence disclosed to only a few. “You have to work your way up,” Agwu said. He prefers ose, but on some days, “if I’m feeling really nostalgic,” he said, he goes for what he calls No. 4.
And No. 5, a “super special order,” which no customer has yet dared to try? He laughed. “Absolutely not.”