Eating Global, Locally at the Global Café
West African cuisine shines in an unusual location.
For more than a decade, Kofi Sillah worked at a printer in Kensington during the day, and in the evening enjoyed the meals his wife, Siga, cooked from their home country of Gambia. While the printer gave Kofi valuable experience, a simple declaration from Siga changed everything.
“It is good to do something you enjoy, and I enjoy cooking!”
The Sillahs did some research and found very few establishments in the metro area that featured West African food. They decided they could fill that void.
“We looked at two spaces in the Gaithersburg area and one other in Wheaton," Kofi said. “Then we learned about a possible opening at the corner of University Boulevard and Georgia Avenue from LEDC.”
Kofi and Siga ultimately took advantage of the opportunity, opening the Global Café in October of 2009. While it is a bit unusual to find a full-service restaurant in a gas station, Kofi is glad to welcome the walk-in traffic that they might not see otherwise.
The majority of business comes from carryout--about 75 percent according to Kofi--but on the weekends, the dozen or so tables are full, when sports are on the small restaurant’s flat screen TV.
There are 27 items on the menu, 13 of them traditional West African dishes. (But also, a cheese steak, a gyro, a kid’s meal of chicken strips & fries, seven sides and four drinks.) But there are three real highlights – Jollof rice, a homemade ginger drink and a homemade wonjor, or sorrel drink.
The self-given moniker “Home of the Original Jollof Rice” is a bit of a misnomer, as Gambians do not call the grain “Jollof.” That name was given to the dish by the British, due to the name of the area in West Africa that it comes from.
“Gambian schoolchildren sing a song about Jollof rice, which comes from the textbooks given by the British,” Kofi said.
The first menu item is Bena Chin Ni Jen Chieb, or colloquially, Jollof rice with fish (tilapia in this case). Jollof rice at first glance is very similar to dirty rice, popular in Cajun cooking, but is much milder, and has a complex mixture of spices, giving it an impressive depth of flavor.
The tilapia filet is firm, yet tender, but must be eaten cautiously due to the bones. The extra effort is well worth the delicate flavor, which nicely complements the meaty fish. The side of cabbage and cassava (much like roasted potato) is a nice textural difference from the fish.
“People come from all over to eat here,” said Siga. “We have regular people from Upper Marlboro, southwest Washington, and even Virginia.”
With space at a premium, the Sillahs only cook with fresh ingredients and do a balancing act of estimating how much food they can sell on a particular day.
Two items that are almost always available are the homemade ginger and wonjor/sorrel drinks. The ginger beverage is unexpectedly bold with ginger flavor, a stark contrast to ginger ale, while the wonjor is a unique combination of sweet and sour, somewhat like hibiscus tea, with a bit of a twang to it.
The Sillahs recommend calling ahead, both to check and see what is available, and to counter the challenging parking situation. There are three spaces available in the Exxon parking lot, or street parking around the corner in the Triangle area.