Columbia City's Safari Njema Restaurant — and its owner and chef Jane Kagira — is a delight. Patrons travel from far and wide to taste her Kenyan dishes.
To the casual passer-by, there is nothing terribly remarkable about Safari Njema Restaurant in Columbia City. Located in a small beige strip mall off Rainier Avenue South, it’d be easy to overlook if you weren’t looking for it. But you’d be missing out.
Beyond its modest storefront, it is quite remarkable, indeed. Safari Njema Restaurant’s owner and chef Jane Kagira, for one, is a delight. A vibrant woman with a knack for storytelling, Kagira is the type of person who will generously spend 40 minutes chatting with a reporter about her life and restaurant as the lunch rush ramps up on a busy Friday. And she is the catalyst for all the other nice things about the restaurant: its fabulous food (particularly the tilapia, her signature dish), its gravitational pull on diverse communities and its role as a space where people can feel at home.
A lot of hours go into this. She’s up at 7 each morning preparing for the day, then works from the time the restaurant opens at 11 a.m. until after 11 p.m., some days until 1 a.m., before heading home. Her one day off is Tuesday, when the restaurant is closed.
It’s tiring, but it’s a labor of love. Kagira, who grew up in Kenya working in her mom’s restaurant, said she had long hoped to have one of her own someday. So after working as a caregiver for many years in Washington, D.C., and Seattle, and feeling the ticking of the clock, she went to Le Cordon Bleu’s cooking academy in Tukwila, where she graduated in 2009. She found this space in Columbia City in 2010 and bought it, with financial help from a friend. After taking a few months to fix the place up, she opened up shop in May of that year.
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Now, patrons arrive from far and wide — some travel from Vancouver, B.C., specifically to eat at her restaurant, she said. She recalled one recent visitor from Amsterdam who arrived straight from the airport, luggage in hand, after happening upon her restaurant in a Google search. And, with the bright paintings by Kenyan artists and posters of Kenyan presidents (past and present, plus one with the Obamas, titled “Uhuru at White House”) on the walls, “when Kenyans come, especially those that are homesick, they say, ‘Oh my gosh, I feel like I’m just in Nairobi,’ ” she said.
All this is a lot to manage for one individual, of course. She’s run the restaurant with her husband and two of her three kids since it opened, and has also hired a few part-time employees. But even so, the long-term sustenance of the restaurant is up in the air.
“I don’t know how long I can keep doing this, because I’m aging,” said Kagira, 56. “But at least, I’m wishing to have another four years.”
All the more reason to pay the restaurant a visit, stat.
The food: The restaurant presents five main entrees to choose from: ngombe (beef), mbuzi (goat), kuku (chicken), samba (veggies) and samaki (tilapia), each of which comes with your choice of starch and veggie sides. Options include a fluffy pilau (basmati rice steamed with spices) that I could and would eat on its own; ugali, a white, soft cornmeal block meant to accompany the more flavorful dishes on your plate; chapati, a Kenyan flat bread (a bit drier and less greasy than the variety in Kenya, according to a dining companion who had lived in Nairobi for a period of time); and matoke, a starchy green banana dish in currylike sauce, Kagira’s personal favorite.
All are Kenyan dishes, and Kagira tries to keep them pretty true to the flavors back home — though she adds her own touch, having developed and taste-tested all the recipes herself.
Beyond the main dishes, there is a selection of appetizers, including madazi (Kenyan sweet bread) and samosas; various cakes for dessert; and a variety of nonalcoholic drinks (the restaurant is halal).
Don’t miss: The deep-fried tilapia was the crowd favorite in my dining group, and quite possibly the best tilapia I’ve ever had. The tender fish was encased in a crisp skin that was shockingly tart and tangy, a tantalizing zing to the taste buds with every bite. Only bones were left by the meal’s end.
The pace: Fast food, this is not — expect to earn your meal with patience. Our table waited about 45 minutes before our food arrived, but it was all worth it once we dug in. Our server was uber polite and courteous, though a little scattered, and forgot to get us our samosa order. That’s OK; we were, by then, fully stuffed.
Prices: Mbuzi with pilau and the sukuma mix (collard greens and spinach) ($10.99); samaki with ugali and matoke ($12.99); and four orders of chapati ($2 each) amounted to $31.98 before tax and tip, a steal for feeding four.
Safari Njema Restaurant
Kenyan; 5041 Rainier Ave. S. (Columbia City), Seattle; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday and Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m.-10 p.m. Sunday, closed Tuesdays; 206-723-3058