The Spot: Sumah’s West African Restaurant & Carryout, 1727 7th Street NW (202) 462-2516
The Cuisine: West African
The Go-To Dishes: cassava leaves with beef and chicken, okra sauce with beef and chicken
The Scoop: My initial impression when walking into Sumah’s West African Restaurant & Carryout was that I was in the wrong place. The dimly lit room was empty except for a map of continental Africa on the far wall and a rack of African movies and CDs for sale in the opposite corner. There was no one behind the counter, and the visible trays were void of anything resembling food. The only sign of life was a television set blasting the latest and hippest West African music videos. All in all, it was kind of a what the hell moment.
Before my mood turned darker, though, out came Istata Sumah asking if I was ready to order. She handed me a menu as I debated my options. Would it be chicken with peanut butter sauce? Maybe some beef in cassava leaves? While I’ve traveled through Southern Africa and am fairly familiar with many of its culinary traditions, West African cuisine presented itself to me like a puzzle.
Sumah could see my indecision and offered me a sampler plate of some of her most popular dishes. My taste buds went haywire as soon as I sampled the red okra sauce, cassava leaf sauce, and the green potato leaf sauce. Each dish came fully equipped with a spice that lingers. All are served over jollof rice and come with the option of either chicken, beef, or fish. A large Styrofoam container of most of Sumah’s dishes goes for about $15. I decided to get an order of beef and chicken in the green potato leaf sauce and a cup of Sumah’s homemade ginger beer.
As I was waiting, a sharp-dressed man who introduced himself as “Joe” walked in and took a seat. He gave me a smile and politely asked how I had found my way into Sumah’s. I explained that it was my first time. He told me that he was an immigrant from Sierra Leone and comes to Sumah’s whenever he’s in need of a little comfort food. The owner quickly came out and took Joe’s order of chicken in red okra sauce in Krio, a native language in Sierra Leone.
Once my food finally arrived — service was anything but fast — I discovered that the green potato leaf was actually sweet, a nice contrast to the juicy beef and chicken. All meat is served on the bone. The chicken was not as moist as I would have liked, but the beef was spot-on. All of this came over rice, and I found myself stuffing it down at a pace that I’m sure was unflattering to my new friend, Joe. The ginger beer was delicious and different from the stuff I drank in Southern Africa. It wasn’t carbonated and was heavily dosed with lemon, which made for an interesting dichotomy of flavor.
I got a chance to sit down with Sumah after my meal, and she explained that the carryout has been in Shaw for 17 years. I tried to get her to divulge some of her recipes, but all she would say was that fresh onion and tomato played a large role in most of her dishes. As we were speaking, a young boy ran into the restaurant and began pleading for a small dish of green potato leaves. Sumah smiled, asked how his mother was, and commented on how much the boy could eat. Then she stopped playing mother/hostess and went back into the kitchen to do what she does best.
The Verdict: Sumah’s West African Restaurant & Carryout offers some of the most interesting cuisine found in the District. I know of nowhere else that serves up these delicious meals from Sierra Leone. Go for the food, not the service or the decor, just the food.