Shokunbi earned his stripes in the restaurant business at Chipotle Mexican Grill, rising to the level of general manager at a store in his hometown of Bowie, Maryland. The chain marked him, not so much with its approach to customization, but with its big-tent philosophy. Spice Kitchen customers skip the line and accessorize their plates with steak or chicken suya. They are perhaps doing something more important: they are experiencing West African flavors in a counter-service setting, a relaxed atmosphere that, by design, is intended to facilitate newcomers to a dish that is still largely stranger to American palaces.
Spice Kitchen is Nigerian street food via MiXt Food Hall, an airy, open space with large windows that flood the room with sunlight, perfect for illuminating one of West Africa’s favorite dishes.
The chef and owner’s goal is to change “the way people think about African cuisine,” he tells me one afternoon inside the food hall, sipping a hibiscus lemonade flavored with ginger. .
I wouldn’t bet against him. Shokunbi has presence: He is a tall, barrel-chested man who has a striking stillness, as if absorbing all the information around him but retaining his singular dynamism. At 27, he already runs two businesses — not just Spice Kitchen, but also a roofing and solar energy business — and he has much larger plans to empower communities of color with investments in real estate.
But for now, his goal is to bridge a cultural gap he sees with West African cuisine in America: Family-friendly places that specialize in dishes from Senegal, Gambia, Ghana and other countries have tendency to respond to the needs of their own communities. . He wants Chipotle-fy the kitchen. In other words, he wants to make a conscious compromise: to sacrifice a small tradition to introduce Nigerian suya to a much wider audience. “I want there to be more access for everyone,” he says.
In the name of building bridges, Shokunbi gives me quick training in suya. Chicken and beef are two of the dominant proteins among Nigerian street vendors, who slice the meat thinly, thread it onto skewers, season the raw flesh with suya spices, then place the skewers over an open flame.
Once you place an order, a vendor will slide smoked meats from each skewer; chop them and mix them with red onions, cabbage, cucumbers and other vegetables; sprinkle the combination with more suya spices; then wrap it all up in a single sheet of newspaper, the kind thrown on the porches of people who still like newspaper. You eat this delicious pileup with toothpicks or your fingers.
“The saying is, ‘Yesterday’s newspaper is today’s suya,’” Shokunbi tells me. That’s why the Spice Kitchen founder uses food-grade paper that looks like newsprint: it’s a nod to tradition, even if his TikTok followers don’t often tell the difference. They regularly upset him for having served food on a sheet of yesterday’s newspaper. “Newspapers are so dirty, use parchment paper or something food safe,” said one recent commenter, ending his misguided rant with a facepalm emoji.
It’s just part of the learning process. Another part? Understand the properties of the spice suya, a mixture often called yaji among Nigerians. Shokunbi imports his suya spice directly from the motherland, but supplements and amplifies it with his own complements, none of which he will reveal even under heavy questioning. The guy knows how to protect secrets.
But I bought a container of Shokunbi’s suya spice for 50 cents and tasted it on its own: the mix is made with West African peanuts, or groundnuts, which aren’t as sweet as their American counterparts. But the blend also vibrates with cayenne and boasts the floral radiance of ginger. Yet there is also a deep, savory quality to it, which may be due to the Maggi seasoning powder often added to the suya spice. One morning at home I scrambled some eggs with a good sprinkle of Shokunbi’s suya mix, and all I can say is Damn.
The kitchen sprinkles its suya spices over the beef, chicken, shrimp, and salmon, and each protein does a superb job of showcasing the many layers of the mix, except for the salmon. For reasons I don’t fully understand, the clean, buttery flavors of the salmon seem to engulf the spicier elements of the suya mix. If fish is your preferred vehicle for the spice, keep in mind that you get 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 and fiery spinach stew.
As a native son of the DMV, Shokunbi seriously enjoys wings and mumbo sauce. He’s not trying to recreate the combination at Spice Kitchen. It’s just too much of a conceptual stretch. But Shokunbi gives a West African twist to the wings, which he frys, coats in a tangy honey sauce, then sprinkles with suya spices. Personally, I think Shokunbi could make a kill by specializing in those suya wings a few corner times.
As you’d expect, Shokunbi has big plans for the future of Spice Kitchen. If successful in his mission, Shokunbi would indeed change the world in his purposeful way, just as surely as Chipotle redefined Mexican cuisine for a generation built for speed and customization. For now, those plans are just dreams, though I must confess that as I devour one slice of suya beef after another, Spice Kitchen has already changed a world: mine. I have become a regular.
Hours: 12:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 12:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Sunday.
Prices: From 50 cents to $22 for all menu items.