David Laichena comes across as a mellow guy, but get him talking about Kenyan food, and his eyes light up.
“Nyama choma, Sukana wiki, mbuzi wa kuchoma,” he starts listing off traditional Kenyan dishes, breaking into a broad smile. “There’s something about food… food is culture.”
Laichena is the new owner of Safari DC, a restaurant that has long occupied a storefront on 4306 Georgia Avenue, but has been under new management since September 2016. Since taking over, Laichena and his partner have overhauled the menu towards their native Kenyan cuisine (previously, Safari was one of countless District establishments serving Ethiopian food).
In fact, Safari, which sits on a quiet stretch of Georgia Avenue just off the Upshur Street drag, is the only Kenyan restaurant in Washington DC. It has found a following with the Kenyan and broader East African community, with customers coming from all over the DC metro area to enjoy familiar foods in the company of fellow émigrés and others interested in East African fare.
Kenyan food is distinct from the saucier cuisine of Ethiopia, and is less prominent in the District, despite a sizeable Kenyan community here. It features grilled meat and tilapia, and shares staples like collard greens, cassava, and grains with its East African neighbors, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda. Safari DC offers dishes from across East Africa, but concentrates on Kenya, where Laichena himself is from.
“We want to give people a taste of home,” Laichena says. “These foods come straight from the motherland.”
Indeed, Safari DC’s two chefs are Kenyan, and Laichena is currently working with the Kenyan Embassy to sponsor other chefs from Kenya to come over. The restaurant also tries to source authentic ingredients: it imports tilapia from Lake Victoria, and serves Farmer’s Choice pork sausages, produced by Kenyan-owned A.E.S. foods.
“Kenyans will drive for miles for this,” Laichena confided, and then quickly interrupted himself mid-sentence. “You have to try them. Can I cook you up some?”
“Yes, you have to try some, one moment,” and he disappeared. Soon, he reappeared with a steaming mug of spiced Masala Chai tea, which I sipped as we waited for the sausage to cook.
Kenyan culture, Laichena explained, does not allow a guest to go unserved, even in the arm’s-length setting of a blog interview. It’s not unlike my native Ukrainian culture: my husband constantly makes fun of me for refusing to let any visitor, be it a family member or the Comcast guy, escape without properly plying them with food and wine.
Back to the sausage: fresh and surprisingly lean, with a crispy outer skin and a moist filling. On the side was a small, spicy salad, consisting of tomatoes, onions, garlic, and some fiery cayenne peppers. Perfect washed down with a Tusker, one of the Kenyan beers Safari DC carries.
In addition to the sausage, Laichena recommends the goat stew: “unique, and tasty, served with chapati [flatbread] of course.”
For now, Laichena is concentrating on growing Safari DC’s customer base, but his ambitions extend beyond serving tasty tilapia. He sees the restaurant as a cultural space for the East African community and those interested in East Africa, with live music, seminars, and gatherings. Currently, Safari DC’s upstairs club space hosts live music and a Sunday reggae night, but Laichena says he’s interested in bringing East African singers and bands in the future.
Laichena also wants to find ways to source from, and otherwise support Kenyans, from smallholder coffee growers to farmers raising fish, chicken and cattle. This way, he could ensure the authenticity of the food at Safari DC, while helping Kenyans find new markets and opportunities.
In some ways, Laichena says, the approach echoes his own story. He was studying hotel management in Kenya in the early 1990s when Walt Disney World opened Animal Kingdom, and started recruiting Africans to work there in order to lend a feeling of authenticity to the safari experience. Laichena jumped at the opportunity and never looked back. Now, he says, he wants to extend the chance to other Africans.
“I have a passion for this,” Laichena says. “I want to make it different. I want to involve people. And, I want to introduce East African cuisine to the neighborhood.”
Pro tip: Come for "Choma Tuesdays" and get a helping of Nyama Choma (grilled beef) and two beers for $20; or, stop by when the weather is nice and enjoy a Tusker and some samosas on the back patio.
Safari DC Restaurant & Lounge
4306 Georgia Avenue NW