Safari Njema: The Hidden Gem of Columbia City

There hasn’t been too many times in my years of food adventures where I have left a restaurant and felt like I had just visited my Aunt and Uncle down the street. Leaving stuffed to the gills and sharing a few laughs is A-OK in my book.
After slurping down some oysters and indulging in a bit of day drinking in the Columbia City neighborhood of Seattle; a friend of mine reminded me that Safari Njema was close by.

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As we made our way through the parking lot, we were greeted at the front door by the smell of some down right home cooked goodness wafting through the air. The smell brought back instant nostalgic flashbacks of growing up in the Fiji Islands. Fried fish and greens simmering on the stove were the two that I could make out right away. Our mouths already salivating, we were invited in by George who cracked a few jokes as we looked over the menu. We decided that we wanted to try a bit of everything per usual, and left it up to George who said, “I got you guys, you won’t be disappointed”. There have been times where leaving my fate in someone else’s hands has gone terribly wrong and I leave wondering why I continue to be a glutton for punishment. But oh no, not this time…
A short while later, Jane, the owner of Safari Njema brought out a silver platter of love, fit for a king. Actually, fit for two kings: goat meat, fried Tilapia, sautéed cabbage, greens, chapati, and ugali- which is a staple food in Sub-Saharan Africa, usually made of maize flour, millet flour, or Sorghum flour.

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Forks and spoons were provided but you have to push those aside and do it the right way, roll up your sleeves and dig in with your hands. There is something about eating with your hands that always makes your food taste better, especially when it’s an accepted method while you are in public. This meal allowed all of my senses to work together to truly appreciate every bite I took. Let’s just say, there was a lot of moaning and groaning and a lot of head nods in approval during the next 30 minutes. The fried tilapia was one of the best, if-not, THE best fried fish I’ve tasted anywhere (sorry Dad). The goat meat… fall apart tender, paired with the fresh made ugali and a dollop of their house made habanero hot sauce. The flavors and textures worked exceptionally together.

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While we were eating, we noticed that there were a lot of working class folks picking up to-go orders of the fried tilapia along with a large number of Somali transplants via Kenya, who now call Seattle home. A man wearing a Bluetooth ear piece came in exclaiming to whomever was missing out on the other end, that he had been relapsing after having the fried fish two days earlier, for the first time. He added that he gladly made the trip over from Bellevue, because he couldn’t stop thinking about it.
After devouring every morsel of our food, Jane brought out a complimentary fruit salad which was a nice touch to top off our meal and it really helped ease the effects of an exceptionally warm Seattle summer day.
George and Jane are serving up good vibes and love at Safari Njema. Wash your hands and get ready to be spoiled by your favorite Aunt and Uncle for a very satisfying comfort food experience. Safari Njema is the hidden gem of Columbia City.

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Written By:
Krishan Kumar

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To Be Satisfied

Sweating my balls off, spattered with chunks of mashed potato, hosing tap water into a plastic beverage dispenser amidst the din of mass production.

“Hot pan!” Somebody yells and I yell “Hot Pan!” back at them, tense my shit up as they go whistling by behind me, feet shuffling on the slop greased floor, pan sizzling that serpent sizzle and dropping with a clatter into the steam bath. My bucket is full and the guy beside me hands me the Gatorade powder.

When he’s handed the canister over he adjusts the hairnet on his head, which I would readily make fun of save for the fact that he looks like he just got out of prison for eating babies and that I am wearing one also.

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“You with the church?” He asks.

“Oh, uh, no.” I say.

“Court mandated?”

“Huh?”

“You working off a fine?”
“Oh! No.”

“Why you here?” He says.

“Just wanted to help out.” I say, which isn’t entirely true. That motivation is definitely in there, but I’ve got a deeper fascination that I’m looking to feed as well.

“That’s cool man.” he says. “We need the help.”

 

‘We’ is the Tacoma Rescue Mission, which you can find tucked between two hillsides on South Tacoma Way, or a the bottom of a long fall through hard times. It’s been in operation in one form or another for more than 100 years, first opening its doors in 1912 at the behest of an evangelical preacher named Gypsy Smith. In the time that followed it’s creation, it has grown exponentially, picking up campuses and programs, shifting locations and widening its focus to meet the needs of men, women and children at the end of tattered ropes for all the different reasons people find themselves there. The Great Depression, World War 2, Vietnam, the Great Recession and all the while, the Rescue Mission picking up pieces and giving them the shelter and food they needed to try and put themselves back together. Shelter in the form of their various housing programs scattered throughout the area. Food (on this occasion) in the form of Shepherd’s Pie, hot heavy and serious.

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“Hot Oven!” Desiree screams over her shoulder, and I echo it back to her, my voice ringing off the insides of the Brave New World style potato cooker that I’m scrubbing. Steam rising out of the hot water I’m massaging into the slick steel sides of it, gloves disintegrating against the grit of the Brillo pad. There’s a big plastic bin at my feet filled with potato chunks. That bin and all the other “slop buckets” will be picked up by local farmers at the end of the day. The farmers will feed it to their pigs.

Desiree heaves the pan out of the inferno saying,

“ Watch those doors kid, they’ll get ya.”

I believe her. She’s got a shiny pink spot on her forearm where it branded her earlier in the week. Little dark dots on her hands from earlier encounters.

“Yeah they will.” the head cook says from behind her, arms folded over his chest, eyes never leaving the pan she’s easing onto the counter. He’s got tattoos on his forearms, which are corded with that hard work muscle. That hungry muscle.

“That oven don’t care who you are.”

And he looks over the crusted cheese on his shepherd’s pie and hints at a muted smile.

Trays of bread and pastries, donated from local bakeries are slid out onto the counter. Over the steam baths are pans of Shepherd’s Pie and corn on the cob. Salad in four cold cases further down the line. Desiree, one of few non-volunteer workers in the kitchen, stations me at the pastry tray. Says,” Give ‘em one for now. Line gets shorter we’ll start passing out seconds.” I nod and start to peel the saran wrap off them. The Asian lady beside me at the bread station stops me from fully uncovering them. “Only half off.” she says. “Sometimes, the spit fly.” The doors leading out to the hall open slightly and a white guy pokes his head in. Kinda guy that might make you cross the street if you saw him coming towards you. Feral in the eyes, scribbled with blue ink tattoos.

“ Can I help you Larry?” Desiree says and she posts her hands on the line, leans on them.

“ I was just seeing if it was ready.” He says.

“You know what time it’s ready.”

“Yes ma’am.” he says and the door shuts behind him.

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Trays are stacked, silverware cleaned and separated. The whoosh and roar of the dish station subsides briefly and the sound of music drifts into the room through the doorway of the seating area.

“What is that?” Desiree asks, and a dude they call ‘Ghost’ answers her.

“ They’re doing Karaoke in the dining room.” A laugh crackles out of him.

“Who’s idea was that.” Desiree says and his answer is lost in amidst an off key rendition of “The Way You Look Tonight.”

Then the doors open and the people enter.

 

Food has taken on an unusual dynamic in our society. Its an industry, like coal or oil, now. Food has channels devoted to it with reality television programs centered around it. Some of it is prepared by highly paid megalomaniacs in pristine kitchens to be carried by struggling servers and eaten hastily by people who barely appreciate it. Some of it is processed bullshit in hip packaging. We gripe constantly about food. We rip good efforts by hard-working cooks to shreds because it is fashionable to do so. We trash restaurants on yelp because it was “too hot in the seating area on the day I went there” or because “ the street outside the restaurant is loud.”  Which brings me finally to my ulterior motive for standing on the serving line at a homeless shelter on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

 

“Want a pastry sir?”
“Yes please.

“What looks good to you, man?”

“Shit, they all look good.”

“Ha, how about this almond croissant?”

“Hell yeah.”

“Here you go man, enjoy.”

“I will.”IMG_2379

And he will. He absolutely will. They all will. One after another, sliding down the line smelling the lovingly crafted shepherd’s pie as it’s scooped into their steel trays. Carefully picking their bread out, surveying their pastries and asking questions about their salad. Some are smiling and some are not. Some ask for what they want and others point. They are men and women and even the occasional child and dog in varying degrees of disarray and the beef in the pie is not wagyu and the bread on the tray is day-old. But everyone is happy to have it. And I’m happy to watch them be happy. The head cook walks out onto the line to look things over, arms still crossed, that muted smile still muted. A guy in wifebeater is back for seconds and when he sees the cook he flags him down. Says,

“Hey man, the food….”

There’s a dramatic pause, then he’s grinning, both thumbs straight up in the air. Cook cranks the smile up to 11.

 

When the lines been whittled down to basically nothing, Desiree sends me to the dishwashing station to help out the old guy back there hosing dishes. He’s a resident, putting in some extra work, singing along with the guy doing Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Simple Man in the other room. Both of them singing with their eyes closed. Putting feeling behind it.  

 

“Forget your lust for the rich man’s gold

All that you need is in your soul

And you can do this, oh baby, if you try

All that I want for you, my son, is to be satisfied

 

And be a simple kind of man

Oh, be something you love and understand”

-Lynyrd Skynyrd “Simple Man”

 

 

 

Sources and Links:

  1. https://www.trm.org/
  2. https://beta.worldcat.org/archivegrid/collection/data/658236358
  3. http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/lynyrdskynyrd/simpleman.html

Right Pedal Gas, Left Pedal Sushi

    Good food should stop you in your tracks. Snap like a crackle of heat lightning, rumbling through the rest of your life. I’ve had sandwiches that cut me off mid-sentence like Kanye West at an awards show.

“The so the doctor got my results back and-”

(Munch)

“HEY IMMA LET YOU FINISH BUT FIRST YOU GOTTA TASTE THE CRUST ON THIS BAGUETTE!”

Kanye Sandwich
Photo illustration of Kanye West for Feschuk column. Photo Illustration by Sarah Mackinnon and Richard Reddit

    I’m not saying that everything you cram into your gnashing food hole should be a transcendental experience. I understand that there are times when even the good stuff needs to take a backseat to whatever else is going on in your miserable life. I don’t expect you to take a moment to enjoy the well balanced flavors in the burrito you plucked out of the overturned street cart during day 3 of the fight for independence. I’m not saying you’re a monster for not appreciating the fragrance of perfectly aged cheese presented to you in the wine bar at which you’ve chosen to drink yourself to death to atone for your part in the failure of your 3rd marriage. Life is distracting. That being said, I would put it to you that it is trying times like those in which that attentiveness is most vital. Most resuscitory.

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   There’s a small paperback book in a drawer by my bed with lily pads on the cover. On each page there is a single line of wisdom from Buddhist monks. On page 112, the words “ If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change.”

I find this quote to be particularly stirring when related to food. You tell me that any burrito will ever taste as good as the one that might be your last. You look me in the eyes and tell me you ever needed a piece of cheese worse than on the eve of your 3rd marriage (the fuck are you? Ross from Friends?) That moment to yourself could be the break in the sequence of self doubt or fear that you need to start your mutation into a better human being.

What were we thinking starting this revolution?

They’ve got us surrounded!

We never had a chance…

(Munch)

Oooohhhh Gahddamn that’s a good burrito

I wanna live!

Viva la Revolucion!

    And just like that you’re chucking molotovs and slamming tequila in the presidential mansion… Or whatever. That moment may be all you need. That change in perspective can be invaluable. Lately, I’ve been picking up my paradigm shifts at a place called THEKOI in Tacoma.Image-1 (5).jpg

    You can find THEKOI on the corner of Commerce and S. 17th, at the foot of the Carlton Center, a building that went up in 1909 and was one of the earliest restoration projects in IMG_2271the Union Station Historic District.  The streets aren’t paved with cobblestones anymore but you can probably still find the ghosts of cirrhosis ridden drunks from the prohibition era staggering up and down the alleys at night. Not unlike the city itself, THEKOI has had its ups and downs. It used to be TWO KOI. One of the KOI’s left and the placed closed briefly. It’s passing was felt like a gut punch in my home, as TWOKOI was one of the only places to get quality Japanese food in the area (if you ask me) and a bit of a groin kick to the local food diversity, which had not only lost a great restaurant, but one of only four, FOUR!, Sake Sommeliers in the state of Washington. My wife and I made some questionable decisions in that period of sushi limbo. Little grocery store sushi, buncha diarrhea. Some calls from my bank asking if some pretentious asshole had balled out of control with my credit card. Some homemade endeavors, (which didn’t necessarily turn out badly, but tended to be labor intensive.) When we finally found that THEKOI had reopened (sommelier and all) under its new name on Yelp, we were down there so fast and hard that Vin Diesel woke up in a cold sweat in Hollywood. 
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We danced through through the classily adorned seating area
to our booth by the window. Felt the early summer sunlight glancing off the  green space out front, warming
us like nirvana. I placed my usual order, a chirashi bowl, and waited while the chef summoned whatever goddamn winged angel brings that perfectly crafted masterpiece in a wooden box.

This artwork cannot be eaten haphazardly. I dare you to try it. Double dog dare amidst a wave of goading “oooooh”s from my friends. Try to cram that shit in there like you don’t give a fuck. Try to Dust Buster it up aloofly. It can’t be done. Between the chopsticks and the staggering diversity of flavor in front of you, you are left with no other choice but to slow the fuck down and taste the masterpiece with which you have been presented.

IMG_2267The world grinds to a crawl outside the window as you individually lift each piece of fish from the bed of rice and dip it lovingly into the shoyu and wasabi. Students stand frozen at the westernmost entrance to UW Tacoma across the street as you pick out the individual flavors of each piece of fish. The fat in the salmon belly, the sweetness of the tuna. Chew that tangy rice bed as the light hangs lazily in the massive Windows of the Tacoma art museum down the way, grand and opulent  like the flavors on your tongue. Ages go by in those moments. Decades.

     When life finally does continue onward, and you find yourself staring into an empty box, don’t be surprised if you discover a new found understanding. Some peace and serenity. A little bit more fight, deep down at the base of you. Viva La Revolucion!

Written By:
Kellen Burden

Sources:

>Buddha’s Little Instruction Book by Jack Kornfield is a truly fantastic resource. I would highly suggest picking up a copy for yourself if you need a little light on a dark night.

https://jackkornfield.com/buddhas-little-instruction-book/

>THEKOI on Yelp:

 

Additional Photo Credit:

More sweet celebrity sandwich pictures can be found here

 

 

 

 

Cockatoo’s KFC: Truly Finger Lickin’ Good

I’m sure most of you are already wondering why I’m writing about KFC and you’re probably getting ready to exit out of this tab, but before you do so, let me explain that the KFC I’m talking about is Korean Fried Chicken and not ol Colonel Sanders’ “chicken” that you may have grown up eating.


Situated in-between a strip of random shops and a reflexology foot massage parlor, Cockatoo’s Chicken Restaurant in Federal Way is another one of those places where you would drive past for years without knowing about the great food you had been missing out on. As you walk in, you will probably be given a once over by the regulars inside. Don’t be alarmed- everyone is friendly, just go check in with the lady at the bar, grab a booth and enjoy your complimentary popcorn and sunny side up egg appetizer. Yes, you read that right. Popcorn and sunny side up eggs to munch on while you wait for your chicken wings to come out.


Order a pitcher of ice cold Hite Korean beer and an order of Korean Pear flavored soju– also known as Korean Vodka, which is distilled rice liquor commonly combined with other ingredients such as wheat, barley, or sweet potatoes. The flavored soju at Cockatoo’s uses fresh fruit- always a plus to offset any liver damage. Once the drinks start to settle in, you may begin to notice the Korean pop music (aka K-Pop) blaring through the speakers and you might even feel the urge to throw in a couple two step dance moves that you learned from your days admiring Nick Lachey of 98 Degrees…when you were a lot younger of course.


Now, on to the chicken wings- I always order the sweet and spicy (Dak-nal-gae). It comes out extremely hot, fresh out of the fryer but I still tempt 1st degree burns to my mouth by trying to take a bite as soon as the chicken hits the table. You can cool it down with the pickled daikon radishes, and cold cabbage salad that are served on the side, or gulp down the tasty Hite lager that pairs well with the sweet and spicy fried chicken.


You almost have to be “in the know” or have Korean friends to have gone to Cockatoo’s. A few weeks ago, Kellen and I stopped by Pho Orale in White Center to grab one of their tasty banh mi sandwiches, one of the owners, Young, was excitedly telling us about the upcoming additions to their menu which included a KFC banh mi. I immediately blurted out Cockatoo’s in Federal Way which Young seemed impressed by because he, too, loved him some KFC from Cockatoo’s. Young went on to explain that for some reason, nobody ever knew what he was talking about when he mentioned Cockatoo’s to them. Sometimes this is a good thing, because you don’t want hipsters taking over your local favorites but Cockatoo’s has gone under the radar for long enough and needs to be shared.
Cockatoo’s KFC is truly finger lickin’ good…

Written By:
Krishan Kumar