Swahili Village

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.

Swahili VillageSwahili Village

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. Chicken Wings
Bhajia - Lentil battered Potatoes Samosas

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.

Kenyan Goat Soup Nyama Mchuzi - Beef Stew

Mbuzi Mchuzi - Goat StewOn 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.

Mbuzi Choma - Grilled Goat
Group Platter - Swahili Village

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. Samaki Wa Nazi - Fish in Coconut Curry

Dengu - Lentils in Coconut SauceOn 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.

Asante - Goodbye, Swahili Village

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.

Swahili Village Bar and Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Pho & Grill 198

Pho & Grill 198Vietnamese Restaurants pose quite a challenge for any blogger, especially for this reviewer.  In the past, I have griped about the lack of good establishments outside of traditional Vietnamese communities, like Eden Center, Fairfax, VA, with offerings beyond the expected bowl of Pho noodles.  I have also lamented about the demise of a few restaurants of this cuisine, of which one served outstanding modern and traditional dishes whose flavors were indelible in my mind.  In addition, some places that I have visited have not maintained their standards after a few months of opening, and they have fallen off my must-visit list. So, when a new Vietnamese joint opened just down the road from me in Burtonsville, MD, I had mixed emotions, not knowing which course this culinary adventure would take me.

Pho & Grill 198 occupies what once used to be a Chinese restaurant in the middle of a strip mall that would escape one’s attention in a blink of the eye. I so happened to stumble upon this new establishment when I took my parents to try Ethiopian food a couple of doors down (a rare visit from Australia), and after picking up its take-out menu, I noticed some interesting dishes that went beyond my expectation.  Walking in there for the first time, the well-lacquered furniture and wooden floors, perhaps leftover from its previous life, exuded a warm welcoming ambiance with lots of light streaming through the storefront windows. Well, after a few visits to this spot, here is my report.

Fresh Lemon JuiceDurian Smoothie

Drinks maybe not the highlight in one’s meal, but I do enjoy some from this cuisine.  I had to try the Lemonade, listed as Fresh Lemon Juice.  After hearing the sound of a stirring spoon in a glass coming from the bar, I know that it was made a la minute.  Fresh it was, indeed, filled with bits of tart bits of lemon, sweet enough without sending you into a diabetic shock – the perfect end-of-summer thirst quencher.  Another drink that I honed in on the menu came from the smoothies section, and I had to go for my favorite flavor – Durian.  My glass came filled with a thick icy creamy concoction that tasted rich and milky, with the pungent Durian sulphuric notes (some describe it as “rotting garbage”) cutting through and overshadowing the diary’s innocent mild flavors.  I love the funkiness of this Southeast Asian fruit that I grew up on, and I was savoring every drop like a prized treasure – not for the uninitiated but totally up my alley.  The drinks category are worth looking at, beyond the usual glass of water I usually settle for.

Crispy Spring RollsSummer Rolls

Pleiku style Rice Paper RollsWell, moving on to the appetizers. This place offers a number of types of rolls, some familiar and some not. The Crispy Spring Roll was ordered on one occasion.  What set them slightly apart from most that I have savored was the flavors of crab meat and shrimp that were more pronounced even though they were ground up together into the pork mixture.  They were tasty, fairly light and greaseless, but I did miss the use of taro root in the traditional recipe that adds the certain soft texture to a dense filling (a rare practice these days).  However, they were pretty good light bites.   Since it was summer, I also had to try their Summer Roll. The  rice paper wrapping was still fairly soft and moist without the chalkiness from refrigeration.  The stuffing was a combination of slices of sweet shrimp (a bit overcooked and tough for me) and savory pork, mixed with lettuce, mint and Perilla leaves.  The addition of the herbs in the bundle added a note of interest to this savory light combination, not commonly found in other versions, which I found refreshing with these bites.  The last type of roll savored was something completely new for me – Pleiku Style Rice Paper Rolls.  This Rice Paper bundle comes stuffed with grilled beef, grilled pork stick (like spam), crispy roll, fried egg, cucumber and mixed pickles. Wow, what a roll it was!  I was enjoying the myriad of flavors, all tasting well-prepared and well-seasoned, and textures from the various partners who happen to get along well with each other in the cramped roll.   These bites encompassed all the good things I like about this cuisine, brought together in this super roll. This has become my favorite roll which hails from the owner’s Central Vietnam hometown.

Banh XeoRoasted Quail

Stir-fried Baby ClamsPerusing the menu for the first time, I noticed a couple of dishes in the same section that are not usually found in other Pho places. The first is Banh Xeo or Stuffed Vietnamese Crepes.  A couple of yellowish crepes arrive stuffed with shrimp, beef, onion, and beansprouts.  The shrimps were large and sweet, the beef well-seasoned and tasty, onions sweet, and the beansprouts added the necessary slight crunch to the mixture. But what made the dish stand out were the crepes themselves.  The skins were smoky from being cooked on a smoking cast-iron to produce this crisp and slightly charred crepe (“Xeo” in the name denotes the sizzling of the mixture hitting the hot pan).  The version served here may not be rich with coconut milk (a South Vietnamese trait), but the whole mixture was appealing enough for a friend considering hijacking my dish.  The briny fish sauce was the obligatory and necessary accompaniment to bring saltiness to the unseasoned crepe, which is the case in the traditional approach.   Another appetizer that immediately caught my attention was Roasted Quail.  My order arrived with the miniature bird shiny from a good lacquering and dark from the roasting.  The meat was quite firm yet moist, pulling off the bone rather easily, and exuding exotic notes from the judicious use of five-spice powder that made each bite delectable and the bones somewhat edible too.  Good things come in all sizes, and this small bite is no exception.  Another order that night was Stir-Fried Baby Clams.  The plate arrived with a mixture of the bits of seafood mixed with herbs, topped with crispy fried shallots, along with a plate of rice crackers.  One bite into the dish pointed towards mild and subtle flavors.  I enjoyed this mixture with the sweet tasting baby clams, the crunchy and aromatic fried shallots, the fragrance from mint leaves and pungent Vietnamese Rau Ram herb, and hints of lemongrass and chili wafting through each mouthful.  The rice crackers made the perfect vehicle for the soft seafood with their crunchy texture and for the added savoriness that they lent to each bite. The above appetizers are worth a try, and making the Banh Xeo and Baby Clams into a main course is possible due to the portion size, like my friends and I have done so on our visits.

Shrimp Bun Noodle Salad

Grilled PorkFor the main course, there are selections of dry and soup dishes.  From the non-soup entrees, I ordered Shrimp Bun Noodle Salad on one occasion.  The bowl arrived with a mound of rice noodles surrounded by the usual suspects of mint leaves, cucumber, lettuce, and pickled root vegetables, all topped with a heap of cooked butterflied shrimp, fried spring rolls, and a sprinkling of nutty peanuts.  After pouring the obligatory fish sauce mixed with some Sriracha sauce, the dish tasted very much like how most Bun salads do.  However, what sets this version apart was the shrimp that tasted a bit sweet and charred from some hot grill action, albeit a bit too long judging but its slight toughness.   But, I was enjoying the mini fried spring roll bits that provided the textural contrast to the soft elements in the bowl.  A friend’s order of Grilled Pork Rice dish arrived with an impressive amount of the grilled meat.  One bite into his dish made a wonderful impression: well-marinated meat tasting slightly sweet and salty, and slightly smoky from its stay on the hot grill.  The bits of fried green onions added the slight onion-like fragrance to these meaty bites.  Another friend’s order made with Grilled Beef was equally impressive with a hit of lemongrass that exuded it citrus root fragrance to these clean tasting yet well-marinated pieces.  Another friend’s order of Combination Fried Rice was skilfully made with lightly oiled yellow rice studded with pieces of meat and shrimp, onions and pieces of vegetables, all delicately seasoned – I couldn’t resist but take more than a couple of scoops from my friend’s plate.

Bun Bo Hue

Bun Bo Hue GarnishSince it was a Pho establishment, I knew I had to try their noodle soups.  Ever since I was introduced to Bun Bo Hue in a now-defunct establishment, this dish had to be ordered on one of my visits here.  The bowl was brimming with some steaming reddish soup, covering some round rice noodles and bits of off-cuts like beef shank and pork knuckles, along with Vietnamese ham and some vegetables.  But the star of the dish, and deservedly so, is the broth that had hints of herbal lemongrass, spicy chili kick, and a seafood pungency from the use of shrimp paste, much like anchovy paste.  The side plate of sliced cabbage, banana blossom, mint, Vietnamese mint (Rau Ram), Perilla leaves (cousin of Shiso), added the additional textural interest and herbal qualities to this savory spicy dish.  As if the soup was not shrimpy enough, a container of fermented shrimp paste added more sea brininess to the mix.  I have to admit that this is the best version I have eaten in quite some time, and I’m glad I can just head down the road for this spicy bowl.

Pho Tai

Pho TaiA bowl of the proverbial Pho noodles was calling my name on another visit, and I chose the simple Pho Tai.  The bowl of hot steaming bowl came with a mound of eye-round steak sitting on rice noodles surrounded by a clear soup. After separating the paper-thin beef slices and cooking them in the broth, I could taste the mild beef flavors that were indicative of fresh quality meat. But what grabbed my attention was the broth that was perfectly seasoned without a trace of MSG, with faint hints of the spices used in its cooking, without any single spice standing out – a completely round flavor.  Usually one for stronger flavors in my Pho broth (more star-anise, more cassia bark), I marveled at this “roundness” of flavor, and I don’t think anyone would find fault with this bowl.



Flan CakeDesserts do not feature extensively in Asians cuisine, Vietnamese included.  However, I couldn’t help but order Flan Cake at the end of dinner one night, this dish obviously being a vestige of French rule.  A small bowl arrived with the cooked custard surrounded by coffee, with shaved ice perching on the cake as well as pieces swimming in the caffeinated liquid.  This was an interesting combination with the slightly sweet and creamy flan mixed with the slightly bitter and under sweetened coffee.  I quite enjoyed this interesting pairing, but it would have been more successful if the coffee was sweeter since it was robbing some of the flan’s sugars, which made the cake a bit flat.  A friend’s night-cap of Vietnamese Coffee arrived on the table in its traditional style: a filtering contraption sitting on top of a shot glass filled with thick sweet condensed milk.  A sip from his glass confirmed what I like about Vietnamese coffee – sweet, strong and bitter without the acrid notes (usually found in American coffee), exuding aromatic chicory notes from its roasting.

Vietnamese CoffeePho & Grill 198 is not your typical Pho noodle place. What this place offers is far beyond what one usually expects from this type of establishment, with offerings of the wonderful “super” Pleiku roll, the aromatic Roasted Quail, the subtle but tasty Baby Clams, the smoky and crispy Crepes, the rounded flavors in the Pho noodles, and the wow factor that I savored in the Bun Bo Hue spicy noodle soup.  An establishment of this kind in the suburbs is a rare find, even more so in a not-so-diverse suburban town in Montgomery county.  But judging by the stream of clients entering its doors, the word is out that something good is going on here.  Fortunately for me, it is just a stone throw away from my house, and I will be walking through its doors with some frequency for the wide variety of its scrumptious Vietnamese offerings.



Banh Mi>Addendum:
Pho & Grill 198 has just started serving the quintessential Vietnamese sandwich, Banh Mi, and I had a taste of it today. Fresh crusty baguette, crispy vegetables, sweet and sour pickles, Jalapeño bite, fragrant cilantro, and marinated lemongrass grilled meat – a winning combination!! Finally this sandwich has made it to this side of the DMV.

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