Chef-owner Olumide Shokunbi. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)
BY TIM CARMAN
BRENTWOOD, MD (WASHINGTON POST) - Thin strips of beef, dusted with a formidable West African spice blend, are scattered atop a waxy sheet of “The American Times,” a faux newspaper whose motto is “All the News That Changes the World.” The slogan, an obvious riff on the Gray Lady’s 19th-century retort to yellow journalism, seems custom-made for Olumide Shokunbi and Spice Kitchen.
Shokunbi earned his stripes in the restaurant business at Chipotle Mexican Grill, rising to the level of general manager at a store in his native Bowie, Md. The chain left its mark on him, not so much with its approach to customization but with its big-tent philosophy. Customers at Spice Kitchen don’t walk the line and accessorize their plates of steak or chicken suya. They do something perhaps more important: They experience West African flavors in a counter-service setting, a relaxed atmosphere that, by its design, is meant to ease newcomers into a dish still largely foreign to American palates.
Spice Kitchen is Nigerian street food by way of MiXt Food Hall, an airy, open space with large windows that flood the room with sunlight, perfect for shining a light on one of West Africa’s beloved dishes.
The chef and owner’s goal is to change “the way people think about African food,” he tells me one afternoon inside the food hall, as he sips on a hibiscus lemonade spiked with ginger.
I would not bet against him. Shokunbi has presence: He’s a tall, barrel-chested man who has a striking stillness to him, as if he absorbs all the information around him but maintains his singular drive. At age 27, he already runs two businesses — not only Spice Kitchen, but a roofing and solar company, too — and he has much larger plans to empower communities of color with investments in real estate.
But right now, his objective is to bridge a cultural divide that he sees with West African food in America: The mom-and-pop places that specialize in the dishes of Senegal, Gambia, Ghana and other countries tend to cater to their own communities. He wants to Chipotle-fy the cuisine. In other words, he wants to make a conscious trade-off: Sacrifice a little tradition to introduce Nigerian suya to a much wider audience. “I want there to be more access for everybody,” he says.
In the name of bridge-building, Shokunbi gives me a quick education in suya. Chicken and beef are two of the dominant proteins among Nigeria street vendors, who slice the meat thin, thread it onto skewers, season the raw flesh with suya spice and then place the skewers over an open flame.
Once you place an order, a vendor will slide the smoky meats off each skewer; chop and mix them up with red onions, cabbage, cucumbers and other veggies; sprinkle the combination with more suya spice; then wrap the whole shebang in a single sheet of newspaper, the kind thrown on the front porches of people who still love newsprint. You eat this delicious pileup with toothpicks or your fingers.
“The saying is, ‘Yesterday’s newspaper is today’s suya,’” Shokunbi tells me. Which is why the founder of Spice Kitchen uses the food-grade deli paper that resembles newsprint: It’s a nod to tradition, even if his followers on TikTok can’t often tell the difference. They routinely give him grief about serving food on a sheet from yesterday’s paper. “Newspapers are soooo dirty use parchment paper or something food safe,” said one recent commenter, ending her misguided rant with a facepalm emoji.
It’s just part of the learning process. Another part? Understanding the properties of suya spice, a blend often called yaji among Nigerians. Shokunbi imports his suya spice directly from the mother country but supplements and amplifies it with his own add-ins, none of which he’ll reveal, not even under heavy questioning. The guy knows how to protect secrets.
But I did buy a container of Shokunbi’s suya spice for 50 cents and tasted it on its own: The blend is based on West African peanuts, or groundnuts, which are not as sweet as their American counterparts. But the mix also vibrates with cayenne and boasts the floral radiance of ginger. Yet there is a deep, savory quality, too, which may be due to the Maggi seasoning powder often added to suya spice. One morning at home, I scrambled some eggs with a healthy pinch of Shokunbi’s suya blend, and all I can say is damn.
The kitchen sprinkles its suya spice on beef, chicken, shrimp and salmon, and each protein does a superb job of showcasing the many strata of the blend, save for the salmon. For reasons I don’t completely understand, the clean, buttery flavors of salmon seem to swallow up the spicier elements of the suya blend. If the fish is your preferred vehicle for the spice, keep in mind that you’re getting a muted experience. Spice Kitchen serves its suya plates with a handful of sides. Whatever you do, don’t miss the full-throated jollof rice or the efo riro, the latter a kind of spicy, spirited spinach stew.
As a native son of the DMV, Shokunbi has a serious appreciation for wings and mumbo sauce. He’s not trying to re-create the combination at Spice Kitchen. It’s just too much of a conceptual stretch. But Shokunbi is putting a West African spin on wings, which he deep-fries, coats in a hot-honey sauce and then sprinkles with suya spice. Personally, I think Shokunbi could make a killing specializing in these suya wings at a few corner carryouts.
As you might expect, Shokunbi has grand designs for Spice Kitchen’s future. If he should succeed in his mission, Shokunbi would indeed change the world in his own targeted way, just as surely as Chipotle redefined Mexican fare for a generation built for speed and customization. Right now, those plans are just dreams, although I must confess that, as I devour one strip of beef suya after another, Spice Kitchen already changed one world: mine. I’ve become a regular.
3809 Rhode Island Ave., inside MiXt Food Hall in Brentwood, Md.; 202-280-1491; spicekitchengrill.com.
Hours: 12:30 to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 12:30 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 1 to 8 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: From 50 cents to $22 for all items on the menu.