Niquenya Collins cooks irresistible food.
“A man actually went to our grill, took hot, steaming meat, stuffed it down his shirt and took off running down the alley,” said Collins, executive chef and owner of Cocoa Chili in Chicago. “It was very strange, but I kind of understood and wasn’t upset, because it smelled so good.”
The incident occurred in her backyard, before Collins opened her restaurant on the West Side earlier this year. The company currently works out of a kitchen at The Hatchery, a business incubator in the East Garfield Park neighborhood, offering takeout only. Collins describes her menu as Afro-Caribbean-soul, featuring sweet and spicy foods across the pan-African diaspora.
“That means jerk chicken, Senegalese poulet yassa, and macaroni and cheese,” she said. “I wanted to do a big arc from the United States around to Africa on the first go.”
Cocoa Chili has appeared on nearly every best and hot restaurant list in the city since opening in February. The beautifully executed dishes have not necessarily developed from family recipes or global travel — but many are born from Collins’ careful study of food that is quintessentially Chicago.
Take for example the poulet yassa ($13). It’s inspired by Yassa, the venerable African restaurant on the South Side. The chicken dish, smothered with softly sweet onions, is typically balanced by lemon and mustard.
“I haven’t been able to find it anywhere else in Chicago,” Collins said. “I’ve had in my mind from the beginning that I wanted to share it with others.”
Her interpretation currently uses chicken tenders. That may be appreciated by those who prefer boneless white meat. I don’t, because the cut can be a challenge to cook without drying, and Collins’ luminous dish shows such promise otherwise.
It might change in future iterations, Collins said. “I just wanted to make sure that we could launch in a way that we could figure out, since it’s a new industry to me,” Collins said.
The menu, which rotates items in and out frequently, includes some of her favorite dishes — and while the restaurant itself might be new, the recipes are not.
“The jerk chicken, I’ve been making for close to 20 years,” Collins said.
Charred aggressively (in the best way), the quarter of chicken leg and thigh ($15) is rendered surprisingly tender on the grill and thoroughly infused with warm spice. A spicy jerk sauce served on the side radiates impressive, bright intensity.
Jerk stands in Jamaica may not always serve their chicken sauced, just as barbecue joints in Kansas City may not serve their ribs slathered either. In Chicago, some of the best jerk chicken places pour a thick, meaty gravy over their rice and beans, but the sauce at Cocoa Chili hits a different note.
“The sauce is my own unique recipe. It’s a fan favorite. That was probably the first indication that maybe I should pursue a commercial venture,” Collins said.
As she perfected her recipe at home, she would pound fresh herbs and spices with a mortar and pestle.
“I think most of the jerk flavors out here (in Chicago) focus more on the heat,” Collins said. “True jerk, though, should have a citrus note. Allspice and thyme marry together to create that wonderful flavor profile, and then the heat from the scotch bonnet peppers just adds a kick.”
Collins did not get her start in restaurants; she’s been a business coach for the last 25 years. She’s been cooking, though, since she was 2 years old.
“I was in the kitchen with my mom, my grandmother and even my great-grandmother,” Collins said. “We always cooked huge family meals. I have about 30 or so cousins, and I’m the oldest of all of them.”
Cooking in her family was a bit nontraditional.
“In terms of what the normal African American family would eat, we’ve always been very experimental,” she said. “I have early memories of my grandmother making things like chop suey, which is not something that typically you’d have outside of a restaurant, especially back then, and not in a Black family.”
That lifelong love of food and exploring its bounds meant that when it came time for a career change in 2019, gravitating toward food just felt natural.
“This has been a concept in the making for quite some time,” Collins said.
She moved to the West Side about two years ago with her husband and family.
“I kept seeing The Hatchery, but I wasn’t aware of what it was,” said Collins. “I was aware of Accion, which is attached to them.”
The nonprofit helps communities grow by investing in people who build businesses and generate jobs in their neighborhoods.
“I thought this is the perfect opportunity for me to figure out how I wanted to tap into this love and passion for food so I did. I was accepted into the program, and that’s how I got launched,” she said. “I originally filed my paperwork in early March 2020, and right after that, of course, is when everything started happening with the pandemic.”
Over the past year, she trained and laid the groundwork for the business — which by the way, was not named for her cocoa chili ($5), a tender beef-and-bean stew, but for a beloved spice blend.
“McCormick used to make a Cocoa Chile spice blend. I think they discontinued it, because I couldn’t find it anywhere. So that’s what led me to start making my own,” Collins said. “People asked if I was going to have chili on the menu. So that’s where the chili came from — it was an afterthought.”
Her cocoa chile spice blend is not yet used on any of the dishes on the menu, but coming soon on lollipop lamb chops, a family favorite.
Speaking of spice, the house-made sorrel ($4.50), a fantastic iced hibiscus tea steeped with hints of clove and allspice, draws on the origins of the red-hued drink, called “liquid soul” by culinary historian Adrian Miller.
Her sole dessert, though, digs deep into local tradition.
“Here in Chicago, everyone lovingly refers to them as lunchroom butter cookies,” Collins said. “If you grew up in the Chicago Public Schools system, that was something that you could purchase for like five cents during your lunch. They may have been what got you through the rest of the day.”
Her mother did a short stint in a CPS lunchroom, knew the recipe and brought it home.
“She started making cookies, and it really helped me get through my first year of college,” Collins said. “My mom sold Avon so I would take her boxes, fill them every night with fresh-baked butter cookies and take them to school the next morning. As soon as I hit the door, I would sell out of all the cookies. That was really how I made money my first year of college.”
Golden, expansive and pressed gently with fluted childhood memories, the cookie ($5 for three) crumbles beautifully, as a CPS kid’s Proustian madeleine.
But what Collins is doing with Cocoa Chili matters in ways perhaps more important than the food itself.
I’ve witnessed decades of Chicago political hype targeting food deserts. One program once touted a shop with giant heads of cabbage as a fresh vegetable solution to packaged foods corner stores. The deserts persist — and were made worse by the pandemic.
Other initiatives, quite frankly, never delivered, with prices prohibitively high for their neighbors, or meals that I couldn’t in good conscience even write about, much less recommend.
Cocoa Chili is a little business that’s different, packing powerful flavors and hope into one lovely plate of food at a time.
“Anyone who’s suffering from food scarcity can contact our restaurant, and we’ll provide them with free meals for themselves and their household,” Collins said.
When ordering from the menu, you can buy a Love Fridge meal ($5) for a neighbor too. (The volunteer organization won the Tribune’s Critics’ Choice Award for Best Solution to Food Access Inequities.) Cocoa Chili is also part of the High Road Kitchens program, a national program under the One Fair Wage organization.
“Their entire point is to not only tackle food scarcity, but also to support restaurants and their staff and to be able to offer living wages at $15 per hour, which we do,” she said.
A $10,000 grant allows Cocoa Chili to give away 500 free meals per month. It’s not limited to certain days of the week, or certain dishes on the menu.
“We give them whatever they are asking for,” said Collins, who, after all, has had a lifetime of experience cooking irresistible food.
3101 W. Lake St., 312-725-3170, cocoachili.com
Editor’s note: The Tribune’s food critics offer several formats of restaurant criticism and commentary. In addition to starred reviews, columns offer insight into how food and the dining industry are woven into our city’s history. Questions? Email food editor Ariel Cheung at [email protected].