Photo by Laura Hayes

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Takoma Park is home to a new West African restaurant, Mansa Kunda. The fledgling corner eatery in a former market space is the brainchild of Hatib Joof, who worked for more than two decades as an operations manager for Spring Mill Bread Company. A native Gambian, he wants diners to feel like “they’re outside of America.”

The décor helps transport guests. Many of the chairs are built with custom-made Gambian djembe drums, which form the seat and the legs, and the hand-woven light fixtures were also sourced from Joof’s homeland.

Other elements were found closer by, including the long bar topmade with reclaimed wood from Second Chance in Baltimoreand re-upholstered church pews that form bench seating along the wall. The space seats 50, plus a 12-seat bar and a small patio out front.

The menu reads like a greatest hits list of West African cuisine. Standout stews include domoda (peanut butter chu), a tomato based option whose main flavor comes from slightly sweetened peanut butter; beefy, greens-rich plasas; and okra stew accented with scallions, garlic, and ginger.

Other classics from the region include garlicky, fish-oil enriched jollof rice that sports a ruddy hue thanks to plenty of tomatoes and peppers; fried plantains; and empanada-like turnovers stuffed with shrimp, vegetables, or other fillings. For dessert, choose from house-made cakes: chocolate and peanut, turmeric-ginger, and sorrel.

Though there is cutlery on the table, Joof encourages people to eat with their hands, as is customary in West Africa. The restaurant’s website has a helpful ingredient glossary for West African cuisine novices who want to bone up before sitting down for their first meal.

While Joof jumps in when needed, Abdoulie Singateh, a veteran of Balducci’s, is the restaurant’s head chef. Joof says that bringing the kitchen team up to speed has been challenging because the dishes are so personal. “People who cook authentic African cuisine don’t usually have formal culinary training,” Joof says. “And there aren’t recipes—people just cook to taste.”

The restaurant is open for breakfast, but offers more Western options (though Joof is working to develop plantain pancakes), such as muffins, croissants, egg and cheese sandwiches with lamb sausage, and locally roasted Quartermaine Coffee. The lunch menu includes some dinnertime items, alongside baguette sandwiches, including one stuffed with shrimp and an onion-based sauce.

Joof chose Takoma Park as the home for his venture because he believes the diverse community will frequent the restaurant. “I haven’t been disappointed,” he says. “People have been very welcoming.”

Mansa Kunda officially opened on Jan. 25, though they were sporadically open earlier in the month to test the menu.

Mansa Kunda, 8000 Flower Ave., Takoma Park, MD; (301) 589-8222; mansakunda.com

Photo of dining room by Laura Hayes