A hole-in-the-wall gateway to West African flavors

La Teranga Senegalese restaurant in Columbia City. (Photo by Reagan Jackson

After moving to South Seattle I have delighted in the fact that almost every restaurant in walking distance is throwing down some fabulous East African delicacy. Ethiopian food is delicious. Eritrean food: yum! Basically I enjoy almost anything that comes with injera, but every once in a while you’ve gotta switch it up. That is how I found myself at La Teranga (which means hospitality).

La Teranga is located on Rainier Ave S. in the heart of Columbia City.

Wedged between Wabi Sabi and the Grecian Delight at first glance it seems improbably tiny. Sitting at one of the four wooden tables that line the wall is bit like have dinner in a hallway with two gorgeous, but very large Senegalese paintings on either side. A colorful curtain separates the dining area from the kitchen, but forms no barrier to lush aroma.

Just walk in the door and you know you are in the right place for a meal that will treat your senses.

“There are a lot of Ethiopian, Eritrean and Somalian restaurants, but there was no specific Senegalese cuisine, real Senegalese food in Seattle,” explains Mamadou, the owner. He and his wife Nabou decided to remedy that in March 2012. “We came up with the idea that we were only going to do Senegalese food.”

With the ever increasing popularity of globalized fusion cuisine, where you can get a burrito with a side of sushi, La Teranga’s purpose is refreshing in its simplicity. Though to be fair, Senegalese food itself is already a cultural fusion, distinctly African but influenced by the Portuguese and French colonizers (hence the olives and white wine).

“My favorite thing is to meet people and also to give them something different, something they have never had,” says Mamadou.

On the Menu:

Senegal is located in West Africa on the coast of the Atlantic; as such you will find a number dishes involving fish.

Fish yassa, with rice and carmelized onions. (Photo by Reagan Jackson)
Fish yassa, with rice and carmelized onions. (Photo by Reagan Jackson)

I ordered Mamadou’s favorite, one of the specialties of the house, fish yassa, which is a beautifully marinated tilapia (bones in…so be careful) perched atop of bed of soft rice and smothered in caramelized onions that tasted of wine and olives.

Decadent and savory and surprisingly light, I washed it down with some bissap juice, a deep ruby hued beverage made from sweetened Senegalese sorrel. It’s got the refreshing quality of an ice tea with a hint of something reminiscent of mint and similar to hibiscus, but with its own unique flavor.

They also serve lamb dibi, my personal favorite, which is described simply as lamb with onions and bell peppers and your choice of salad or couscous (choose couscous!). I don’t know what they do to get the lamb so tender, but you can eat it with a fork and the couscous provides just enough nutty sweetness to compliment it perfectly.

And of course, first on the list of entrees is what is commonly known as the National dish, thiebou djen, fish cooked in a stew of tomatoes served with Jasmine rice, carrots, cabbage, cassava, and eggplant. Thiebou djen hails from Saint Louis (pronounced the French way: “San Lewy”) a coastal city in northwest Senegal, that used to be the Capital until the early 1900s.

“People who are from that area, Saint Louis, those are the people who really know how to make thiebou djen,” Mamadou says, explaining that the woman who made it best was named Penda Mbaye. Her legacy lives on in the form of a compliment. When it’s good (and trust me, its good) you say “Thiebou Djen Penda Mbaye.”

Fear not vegetarians. While there are an assortment of dishes including goat, fish, shrimp, lamb, and chicken, there are also several vegetarian options including a special couscous studded with olives and raisins and cooked with fresh veggies and caramelized onions. Summer will also see a menu shift that will include even more vegetarian options and incorporate the seasonal produce.

“Our food is healthy, not a lot of oil or dairy. Everything is made from scratch, it’s home cooking,” says Mamadou. Whenever possible ingredients are organic and locally sourced, although there are some seasonings that come directly from Senegal.

Mamadou, chef and owner at La Teranga. (Photo by Reagan Jackson)
Mamadou, chef and owner at La Teranga. (Photo by Reagan Jackson)

“We have some really good food. I don’t want to brag about it and say we have the best food in Africa or anything, but we have some really good food.” Mamadou says with pride.

Maria, the woman seated behind me agreed heartily. (Oh yeah, given the size of the restaurant, be prepared to dine communally. It’s physically impossible not to be involved in everyone else’s conversation at La Teranga.)

Maria grew up in Angola and São Tomé, and had the opportunity to visit Senegal as a child.

“I think it’s very homey. It reminds me of actually going to restaurants there,” she told me. “It doesn’t have to be fancy. It’s just a hole in the wall, which means it’s really good.”

Maria ordered the special of the day, goat curry.

“The goat is really good. It’s definitely worth it. It’s a rare find,” she said.

Apparently it was good enough for her to drive down all the way from Shoreline.

She reiterated the common theme, that there are just not many places in Seattle that serve West African cuisine. Bantaba in Lynnwood specializes in food from Senegal’s neighbor The Gambia. And just down the block in Columbia City Afrikando Banadir offers a “combination of West and East African food.”

But amidst a crowded field of Ethiopian, Eritrean and Somali restaurants, La Teranga is one of just a few representing the other side of the continent.

After today’s meal I am really hoping that they start a trend.