DC is known for its Ethiopian and Eritrean food, but you can find another great East African cuisine, Somali food, at Kulan Cafe at 3821 S George Mason Dr, in Bailey’s Crossroads, Virginia.
Kulan Cafe is located in a strip mall called Build America Plaza. If you approach the area from the north, you’ll find yourself walking past large high rises that look a bit like Co-op City in the Bronx and have no sign of commercial life. I was beginning to wonder if I was in the right place until the fragrant smell of spices began to permeate the air. It turns out that Build America Plaza is full of East African (mainly Eritrean and Ethiopian) and Middle Eastern restaurants and stores, which have all manner of Ethiopian spices and dry goods. Its name is an unintentional but apt rebuke to Donald Trump, a reminder that our country was built by immigrants and that immigrants continue to make our country great by enriching our its culture and cuisine.
I initially had trouble finding Kulan Cafe because it is hidden around the back of the shopping center. Once I stepped in, I felt like I had entered a little slice of Somalia. The clientele was all East African (it turns out that day that most of the diners were Eritrean) and several people were prostrating themselves on prayer rugs for the Islamic Zuhr (noon) prayer. The people could not have been more welcoming. When I told them it was my first time eating Somali food, they directed me to the goat and rice dish and told the cook that it was my first time having Somali food to make sure that I got the best possible introduction.
I sat down at a table of Eritrean Americans who had just come from a soccer game. The genial man sitting across from me explained that he came from Eritrea a few decades ago. Unlike some people who were born in the US and take our freedom for granted, when he says “God bless America” he really means it. One aspect of East Africa that he does miss, however, is its more communal vibe where everyone knows each other, looks after each other, and takes a genuine interest in each others’ lives. That feeling of warmth was palpable at Kulan Cafe.
As is typical in Somali restaurants, my food was served with a banana. Matt Pearce, a reporter for the LA Times, wrote an article in May about how he went to a Somali restaurant in Minneapolis and tweeted that the Banana was an appetizer. The tweet generated a lot of amusement and ridicule in the Somali diaspora. As such, the first thing you need to know when you go to a Somali restaurant is what to do with the banana; the most traditional way to eat it is to slice it and put it in the rice. I also tried a Somali orange drink from a cooler (it honestly just tasted like Tang) and a delicious, potent ginger tea. My lunch began with a simple salad, but the real star of the show was the lamb with rice. The lamb was tender and flavorful and the rice was perfectly cooked basmati rice topped with raisins and onions. It was served with a side of somewhat spicy stewed vegetables.
Kulan Cafe is small and humble, but its food is delicious and prepared with love and care. Given the divisive rhetoric of this election cycle, it’s more important than ever for us all to get to know our neighbors. It’s hard to find something that transcends religious, racial and political differences more than appreciating a delicious home-cooked meal together. Kulan Cafe is a perfect place to experience that.