Opening Dispatch

Popular Overnight Food Cart Mama Sambusa Goes Brick-and-Mortar

The Rainier Valley favorite spotlights Somali cuisine in a new space.

By Sophia Struna November 22, 2022

Sambusas, Somali-inspired pasta, and Chef Mohammed's signature cheesecake find a brick-and-mortar home.

After more than a decade serving Somali cuisine in Seattle—and three years of residency in Rainier Valley—the Mama Sambusa Kitchen food cart will soon open a proper restaurant. Here, a new generation of the business wants to elevate Somali cuisine.

Nearly every day of the week, Marian Ahmed, better known as Mama Sambusa, spends the brittle hours of a Pacific Northwest dawn feeding regulars getting off graveyard shifts, or night owls hankering for midnight sustenance. Ahmed and her family used to make sambusas in Africa; her daughter Chef Mohammed has helped since she was able to hold a spoon and stir.

Mohammed originally inspired the cart’s dusk-to-dawn schedule when she realized, during Ramadan two years ago, how hard it can be to find a shrimp taco in this town at 3am. Now, she will take over Mama Sambusa’s expansive 40-item Somali street food menu and move it indoors. In July, she procured the space at 8319 Wabash Avenue South. Currently, the cart sits right outside; soon it will become a dedicated destination for Mama’s handmade sambusas run by Ahmed and her other daughter. Mohammed says the restaurant's official opening date is December 2.

Dishes like fettuccine alfredo or crispy chicken tacos might not sound like traditional African cuisine. But pasta, says Mohammed, represents influence from Italy’s colonization during the late-nineteenth to early-twentieth century. Tacos began as a way to honor the namesake 0f Somali activist, Hawo Tako, then remained as tribute to food Mohammed loved growing up.

“These are dishes that you can find in the streets of my country, and these are dishes that my mom used to sell in the streets of her country, you know, just to be able to live,” she says. “Now to be able to put it at the price points that we have, it's kind of crazy.”

The titular sambusas remain a popular dish on an entirely halal menu: petite golden-fried pouches filled with varying proteins and a plethora of spices that come in four different flavors at Mama Sambusa Kitchen. Ahmed makes them all by hand. 

With the new space comes four new flavors of Mohammed’s signature cheesecakes, including a Somali chai–spiced version called “What’s the Tea,” and a xalwa cheesecake, inspired by a chewy spiced Somali confection. Aside from a few additions, the brick-and-mortar iteration of Mama Sambusa Kitchen will keep the menu largely the same. Once the new kitchen finds its footing, a brunch menu that has long been lodged in Mohammed’s brain is set to drop, including a shakshuka breakfast sandwich.

“I wanted to elevate Somali cuisine, right?” says Mohammed. “In all honesty, there’s a lot of amazing restaurants that don’t get the light of day.” In short, she wants the comforting and bold flavors of her homeland to get the respect they deserve. “We’re so worthy of being in these rooms and we’re not often presented in a way where we should be.”

Mohammed designed the space to provide a warm and intimate environment for customers, something not always possible while running the OG food cart in unpredictable cooking conditions and equally incalculable Washington weather. The results are both broody and inviting, with red-and-white foliage displays and emerald palm fronds tracing the doorways. 

The only seating in the restaurant however consists of four stools at the bar; the rest of the dining room sits empty. After some deliberation, Mohammed decided to use the space as a place where customers can wait for their food, rather than a proper seating area. 

With the restaurant's official opening date next month it will retain the cart’s similar overnight hours and remain open for curbside pickup and takeout only until then. Updates on menu items and hours can be found on the Mama Sambusa Kitchen Instagram.

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