MOUNTLAKE TERRACE — Elhadj Diallo quickly noticed that something was missing from his new home.
He’d arrived from the West African country of Guinea to study software engineering at the University of Washington, then started a job at Microsoft after graduation. Working from the Marysville home he shared with his wife, Kadiatou, Elhadj soon found a vibrant community of fellow West African immigrants in Snohomish County.
But for all the people who’d made the county feel like home, hailing from several small countries nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and the arid desert farther inland, there were few places to turn for food that tasted like home. For ages, only one African restaurant, the Gambia-focused Bantaba in Lynnwood, existed in Snohomish County. Another Lynnwood Gambian spot, Dijah’s Kitchen, opened in 2021. If you wanted to branch out and sample dishes from other parts of the continent, your only option was to trek into Seattle.
Elhadj wanted to offer a wider taste of West Africa when he opened Hadiani African Restaurant in Mountlake Terrace last December. The name is a mashup of his sister-in-law’s name, Hadiatou, and his wife’s middle name, Nima. Both women work in the restaurant’s kitchen alongside other cooks who bring expertise from Gambia, Guinea and beyond.
West Africa shares many similarities between cuisines from different nations, largely based on fresh seafood from the Atlantic and reliable staples like cassava flour and rice. Each country, though, has its own cherished dish or variation on a regional classic. And since Kadiatou had traveled widely through Senegal, Gambia and Guinea, with a stop in France, and had the cooking chops to show for it, the Diallos wanted to incorporate “a little something for everyone.”
“My wife is a really great cook, so that was kind of the second reason I wanted to open this place,” Elhadj said. “Why not share that with everyone else?”
Kadiatou also shared her eye for design with the new venture. The warm interior of Hadiani’s strip mall location is festooned with bright, colorful prints on the walls and tablecloths, and each little detail — down to the carved wood plates imported from the Ivory Coast — was either brought in from Africa or selected to closely resemble counterparts from home. The goal was to make you feel you were stepping off a plane into the Diallos’ native Guinea, whether you had never left the U.S. or were missing Mom’s home cooking, Kadiatou said.
Many key ingredients for classic West African dishes, such as the baobab juice used in the creamy, faintly pink beverage kirri, were once nearly impossible to get in Snohomish County, Elhadj said. But he soon connected with the owners of DizaYus African Market in Everett, a small storefront that stocked those hard-to-find goods. Between that missing link and the fresh, abundant seafood available in Western Washington, it was a match made in heaven.
A popular choice among first-timers at Hadiani, and one of Elhadj’s personal favorites, is attieke, a couscous-like side dish from the Ivory Coast made from fermented, dried and grated cassava root. Served alongside baked or fried fish ($24) or chicken and topped with a tomato-cucumber relish, it’s the perfect toothsome base for sopping up the flavorful juices from the meat and scraps of salad.
Keep perusing the menu and you can put together a veritable eating tour of West Africa: Hadiani also specializes in thieboudienne ($23) — a hearty stew of broken rice, fish, sweet potato and okra simmered in a mustard-flavored tomato sauce — which happens to be the national dish of Senegal.
Or try their take on fufu ($21), of which there are nearly as many variations as there are people making it, and which has inspired a sort of challenge to sample the West African staple on TikTok. Hadiani makes the soft, doughy balls of fufu out of regular flour, but across the region others use pounded plantain or yucca root. Tear off a pinch and dip generously in your choice of three sauces: a sweet-salty-savory peanut butter sauce, a fragrant stew of cassava and fish, or a vibrant green okra dip.
For dessert, customers are often drawn to Hadiani’s hamza ($13) — a sweet porridge of millet, Greek yogurt and vanilla — because how often do you get to have soup for dessert? The restaurant’s shakes ($10) — available in mango, pineapple or strawberry and topped generously with whipped cream — are a delicious, tropical take on an American classic.
However, Herald photographer Annie Barker and I were particularly smitten with the deeply purple, indescribable bissap ($9), a cool, refreshing drink made with the African hibiscus flower known as roselle. It has more depth of floral flavor than the hibiscus-based jamaica typically found at Mexican restaurants, with a sharp sweetness that still manages to be tart enough to keep your teeth from aching.
Annie struggled to put words to the beverage’s multifaceted flavor.
“It’s unlike anything I’ve tried before,” she said. “I can only say that it tastes… purple. In the best possible way.”
Members of the West African diaspora flocked to Hadiani shortly after it opened, joyfully telling the Diallos how excited they were to have access to proper home-cooked food closer to their community. Hadiani’s menu is entirely halal in compliance with the Muslim faith of a majority of West Africans, and Elhadj loved seeing patrons pick up comforting dishes from the restaurant to break their Ramadan fasts.
But Elhadj noticed plenty of folks who’d never even considered trying African cuisine stopping in simply because they were curious. He points out a sign displayed on Hadiani’s front counter, which reads: “People Who Like to Cook Are The Best Kind of People.”
“Those are the kind of people who we cook for, the people who appreciate where it’s coming from,” Elhadj said. “We like to share our culture, our food, with a wide variety of people around the world. And until not too long ago, all these people had no idea what African food could offer.”
Hadiani African Restaurant, 22003 66th Ave. W, Mountlake Terrace. Open noon to 9 p.m. Sunday to Wednesday, closed Monday and Tuesday. Call with questions, reservations or takeout orders: 425-967-3841.
Riley Haun: 425-339-3192; email@example.com; Twitter: @RHaunID.
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