Let me just put this out there, right off the bat: I love food. I especially love really tasty, really savory meals cooked with a healthy combination of flavor and love. Swahili Village (swahili-village.com) in bumblefuck, just-outside-of-DC, Maryland hits that very mark, like, perfectly.
Ok… so, maybe I’m exaggerating by saying that Swahili Village is out in the boonies of Maryland, but the 30-ish minute drive through the back roads (read: deep back woods) of Maryland to get to Beltsville really made it seem like it was in the middle of nowhere.
Anyway, Bridget and I were slated to have a girl’s night on a bitter cold night at the end of February, when earlier that day she texted me about joining her and Matt on a Kenyan food adventure. I was totally down because, like I said, I love food but I also love adventures. Great Friday night combination.
The lovely couple picked me up around 7pm and we made our merry way to Beltsville. On the drive up, Bridget and Matt were telling me about all the reviews they read about this place, citing that it got pretty poppin’ thanks to specials throughout the week, including an all-day Ladies Night special on Wednesdays. Not going to lie, when we got to the place, said “poppin’” status was a little hard to believe: there were only five other couples/small groups in the restaurant. Granted the restaurant isn’t huge, but when there are only five tables filled and there’s a reputation to live up to, you know I’m going to throw a little shade (more on that later).
Upon arrival, we were promptly seated at a really awkward table, somewhat in the middle of the restaurant (really, in the middle of the flow of traffic). At first we were a little uncomfortable, but we found out that there was a wedding or big party rolling through in a matter of minutes, so we made due with our seating arrangements. Not to mention, our server (and really everyone that worked in the restaurant) was so kind and pleasant that it didn’t really faze us in the end.
Matt and Bridget had done some recon on the type of traditional Kenyan food to order, so they scouted the menu with a very particular eye. I, on the other hand, was going on a blind date with Kenyan food. The tricky part for me was that it was a Friday during Lent and, as progeny of a doting Catholic Hispanic mother, I needed to uphold the whole meatless meals on Friday thing.
That idea went out the door when we ordered samosas as an appetizer (oops!). The samosas at Swahili Village come two per order (we got two orders) and are fried triangle pastries stuffed with spicy ground beef. They are served with a seemingly inconspicuous red sauce. We stared at the sauce and dove into smelling it as soon as we got our order, at which point a man, who we think might be the owner, came over to us to ask, “Do you like spicy?” I said yes and he replied, “Well, this is a very spicy Kenyan sauce. Try it, but be careful. It’s veeeery spicy.”
So I dribbled a little of the sauce on my plate and dabbed my samosa cautiously into it. Good thing I heeded this guy’s warning because it was REALLY spicy. Like nasal-passage-clearing, make-you-sweat spicy. But it was so good. So, so, soooo good. The sauce added an extra kick to the already perfectly seasoned, spicy, juicy ground beef wrapped in crispy, flaky pastry dough. Perfection.
As we waited for our entrees, our drink order arrived: Matt ordered a Tusker beer, Bridget got some chai tea, and I went for the mango lassi. My drink was good, but I’ve had better mango lassi elsewhere. I will say that the mango lassi, which is basically a mango smoothie, was a perfect counter to that spicy red sauce served with the samosas. Odd that our drinks took longer than our appetizers, but totally makes sense since we had to ask three times to get some water for the table.
Luckily, our entrees came soon after our drinks. Matt ordered the beef Mbuzi au Nyama Mchuzi (Beef stew cooked in Kenyan spices) with a side of chapati—traditional Kenyan flatbread, and Ugali, listed as “cornmeal mush” on the menu, but was actually more of a thick polenta cake. I tried a little of the sauce from his stew: the spices were immaculately combined to make a savory, flavorful, but not over-powering stew.
Bridget ordered the stewed lentils which are cooked with spices in coconut milk, along with some chapati and a side of spinach. The lentils had layers of taste and were both delicately sweet and deliciously savory all in one bite.
I ordered the curry chicken with chapati and Ndizi Kaanga—fried plantains. Chicken and plantains are diet staples for me, so my entrée had some hard-set ideals to live up to. I will give Swahili Village credit: they did an amazing job. The plantains were not too firm and not to mushy; they were cooked to a perfect crispy lightness, completely avoiding any signs of soggy, heaviness (which makes plantains completely not worth eating, in my humble and weathered opinion). The chicken was cooked so well in the curry that it basically melted apart when you stuck your fork in it and the curry was perfectly balanced without overwhelming the meal. I literally wiped my plate clean with the help of the chapati.
Remember that shade I threw because the restaurant had a “poppin’” vibe but was empty when we arrived? Well, by the time we came up for air after devouring our delicious meals, the three of us realized that the whole restaurant was full and people were waiting in line for a table. By that time, the service went from being leisurely (but still good) to being on point (because of the influx of people, I suppose). And with that, the shade dissipated completely and solidified that idea that I’d totally venture out to Swahili Village again.