Beltsville, MD has quite recently received the accolade by the Washington Post as the area within the DMV with the most diverse offering of good eats, and deservedly so. For a few years, I passed by one of its establishments, Swahili Village, a Kenyan eatery, on my errand rounds, and I was always tempted to savor their offerings. But such enthusiasm was always thwarted by the sight of their small parking lot and its congestion during busy hours. However, for over a year, I had been eyeing a larger shop lot a few blocks away that the restaurant has decided to put down its new roots. After much delay and anticipation, it opened its new doors, and that is where I paid it a few visits.
Walking into the space, you immediately notice that this is not your usual African dive – money has definitely been spent here, and in a tasteful manner. The decor and lights are both modern yet inviting, with splashes of Afrikana to remind one of this place’s roots. Taking my seat, I noticed the glass window opening to the kitchen, which added more psychological space for the eater. I was enjoying the details of the set-up and in the glassware as well as the cutlery. But I had to refocus my attention to the rather simple menu and figure out how to maneuver my appetite around it.
From the appetizers, I had Chicken Wings on an occasion. Usually one to avoid this ubiquitous offering, I was urged by the waiter to give it a try. One bite into it revealed lots to me. The pieces of wing tasted fresh and well-seasoned, without any distinctive spice coming through. I marveled at the crispness despite the absence of any batter and the use of fresh oil to produce a greaseless finished product. Each bite cascaded into another due to the above quality and the poultry being seasoned thoroughly judging by the spice coloring in every morsel. It came with a mild Marsala Sauce which was more a detractor from the already flavorful wings. On another occasion, the order was Bhajia. Thin slices of potato were covered in lentil flour and fried. Its appearance was not exactly very tempting due all the brownness, but one bite into it changed my mind. The potato was perfectly seasoned with the batter adding more flavor and a slightly mealy crisp texture. Judging by the batter color, perhaps turmeric powder was added, hence its faint perfume in the mix. A side of the house-made fiery Pili Pili sauce should be taken with extreme caution but they added some more flavor to these bites. The handling of this lowly tuber was enobling and revelatory. Another appetizer order was of Indian origin, Samosas, pointing to Indian migration to this former African British colony. The packets were phyllo dough wrapped around a filling of ground meat that was well-seasoned and made herbaceous from a handful of cilantro. The dough was perfectly fried with a greaseless touch and a crispy texture. The side sweet hot sauce tasted house-made, providing the right sweet heat for these tasty bites. The appetizers here are some savory starters that are worth the diner’s attention.
On the menu, the entrees include some stew and soup offerings. Goat Soup is the only offering in the soup category and I gave it a try. I enjoyed the whole mix of goat meat that was extremely tender and faintly gamey, perfectly cooked bits of carrots and potato that lent some sweetness and body, alongside tomato that added the slight acid to the mix, and leaves of collard green, all brought together by a fairly clear full-flavored broth that is the sum of the long cooking. I thoroughly enjoyed this sip and I wished it came in a bigger bowl. For the stews, they were either made with goat or beef. The pieces of boneless beef and the bone-in goat were completely tender and flavored by their lengthy time in the stew. The mix tasted slightly tomato-base, making it full-flavored yet rather light for it to be eaten in the midst of summer. The sides also garnered some attention. The cabbage were pieces of finely julienned pieces lightly cooked with some fenugreek, which added a unique scent. The rice pilau was basmati rice scented by cardamon and Indian cinnamon, moistened by some stock just before service. The spinach tasted and had the consistency of creamed spinach (made from coconut milk), enough to give a reputable steakhouse a run for its money. The plantains were not too sweet, for a change, tasting clean having been fried in fresh oil. I must say that my dining companion and I were truly satisfied by these offerings, both the mains and the sides.
The grilled meats in the entree section menu looked very tempting and we had to try them out. One of my first visit, my friend’s order was Grilled Goat. I had a taste of it and it immediately raised my eyebrows. The flavors reminded me of when my Dad had office dinners in the house compound with a goat roasting over a pit fire. Well, the meat was well seared from some charcoal fire, its gaminess suppressed, well-seasoned from a good marination, and tender at the same time. The side of bread, Chapati (of Indian origin), tasted house-made and fresh. The other accompaniment was boiled ground hominy or Ugali, which I thought was too plain for my taste (I prefer the Ghanaian fermented version), but I appreciated its authentic nature. But I kept going back to the goat as its flavors and textures beckoned me to return for more. The side of tomato salad was the perfect counterpoint to the meat with its fruity ripeness and the spot-on seasoning, as well as a slight piquant kick. After tasting the goat, I wanted to come back for some Grilled Beef. But this time, it was served as part of the Group Platter. The oval dish came with the aforementioned grilled meats, as well as grilled chicken breast. The sides were the spinach, collard greens, cabbage, tomato salad, Chapati bread, and Rice Pilau in lieu of the usual order of hominy. The beef came in cube form and they were quite dark from a good stay on the grill which give it a charred flavor that I appreciate with this meat. The pieces were perfectly seasoned, and as it sat on the plate, they got a bit chewy since they were fully cooked – medium rare is a Western taste sensibility, but not here. This house knows how to handle grilled meats and I wouldn’t miss these dishes when visiting.
On a couple of occasions, we tried their lighter fare. Samaki Wa Nazi is fish in a curry sauce. One taste of it pointed to a certain level of care in its preparation. The cubes of tilapia was devoid of the dark fishiness usually associated with it (removing the central nerve is the key), and it had a thin layer of batter from a light frying before it was coated by a savory, creamy and slightly tomato-tangy sauce. I was thoroughly enjoying this concoction, as well as the sides of mashed peas and potato that reminded me of the English version but here studded with reconstituted hominy, and the finely julienned collard green that held its texture and color from a light sauté, akin to how the Brazilians prepare it as a topping for Feijoada. The other light dish was for my vegan BFF – Ndengu or Lentils in Coconut Sauce. The mix had a rather silky feel made creamy from the coconut milk and fragrant from the use of what I suspect Garam Masala, the ubiquitous Indian spice mix, since there was no distinctive single note in the aroma and flavor. My friend was equally satisfied by the sides of Chapati bread and mashed pea and potato.
Swahili Village grabbed my attention from the moment I walked in, from its new space, to the decor, and to the array of gastronomic offerings. What makes the experience at the new place special besides the arresting visuals, is the attention given to the dishes and the refinement in both presentation, seasoning, and flavor combinations, all elements necessary to elevate soulful dishes from the Motherland. Rarely was there an item that I was not drawn to, even the plain hominy that was a direct tribute that I respected and I would’t try to mess with. The owner, Kevin, was both warm and knowledgeable, and he has something good going here, judging by the large crowds of expats on the weekends and Friday nights. The service was faulted by online reviewers at the previous location, but I get a feeling that they heard the customers loud and clear as our servers were attentive and congenial. Don’t worry about the parking – there is a lot of space. Even less to worry about is their wonderful authentic cooking that would please just about anyone.