Our server at Columbia City's Safari Restaurant asked us if we wanted hot sauce as she set down our plates. Always up for a little spice, we nodded eagerly. Arriving in a bottle most will recognize from holding their ketchup at a fair french-fry stand; there was no way to see what we were putting on our food.
African food is not rare in the Seattle area. You'd be hard pressed to miss the swath of excellent Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Somali restaurants that trickle through the Rainier Valley, swarm the Central District and dot the rest of Seattle. The heat of Ethiopian food comes out in dry berebere spice mixtures, sprinkled into stews and onto meats, before cooling off with homemade cheese.
What came out when we squeezed the bottle of Safari's Kenyan hot sauce was resplendent in orange, clearly homemade and fresh as can be. Not that the food was in need of boosts, but the zing of the condiment dressed up many of the dishes, especially cutting through the richness and vegetal taste of the sukuma mix (collard greens and spinach).
Safari's menu is designed as a bit of choose-your-own-adventure, with each entrée coming with a choice of mapunje (starch) and samba (vegetable). Swahili phrases pepper the menu, always accompanied by an English translation and brief explanation in plain language. There's little of the mystery or cross-cultural difficulty that can often occur when dining at a restaurant with whose cuisine you're unfamiliar.
We asked what was in the sauce and learned the hottest of the five peppers included was habañero, but if she told us the rest, she'd have to kill us. It went equally well on the stir-fry, which accompanied our sunshine-yellow curry-drenched tilapia. These veggies gave the opportunity to assess the cooking separate from the new cuisine. It was a familiar dish executed with more wok hay than many local Asian restaurants. We mopped up the curry sauce, along with the veggies and the fish with ugali, described on the menu as similar to cornbread, but I'd say it's a cross between Ethiopian injera and polenta. On our other entrée, pan-fried goat, we picked the meat off using our chapati, a Kenyan flatbread that will be recognized by those who frequent Indian restaurants.
We consoled ourselves by purchasing a large, unlabeled jar of the hot sauce to bring home, offered up after we complimented it on our way out the door. Armed with a culinary degree, Safari owner and Kenyan native Jane Kagira serves up the staples of her home nation for fellow countrymen in search of a nostalgic bite, while creating an inviting and un-intimidating venue for Seattleites in search of a new culinary adventure.
Safari Restaurant: 5041 Rainier Ave S Suite 107