Published on: Thursday, February 3, 2022 Takoma Park Newsletter

Mansa Kunda Brings West African Fare to Takoma Park


By Sean Gossard

Hatib Joof wanted the tastes, smells, and hospitality that he knew from his native country of the Gambia, but when it came to West African fine dining in the region, there was an obvious shortcoming. “There was a vacuum that I had to fill because at the time there wasn’t a fine-dining West African restaurant,” Joof said. “There was always some hole-in-thewall place for the cuisine, but not for the dining experience. I thought that we were missing out on literally introducing the cuisine and hospitality to America.”

So, in January of 2019, he opened Mansa Kunda, which translates to “kingdom” in Mandinka, at 8000 Flower Ave. to bring the flavors of Western Africa to Takoma Park. Featuring fresh West African ingredients like the African Baobab fruit, one of the most nutrient-rich foods on the planet; shito, a Ghanaian hot pepper condiment; and tamarind, a sour tropical fruit often used in Indian curries and chutneys, Mansa Kunda quickly gained an adoring fan-base, being named one of The Washington Post’s 10 Best Casual Dining Restaurants for 2019.

“The food, in most cases, is unorthodox,” said Joof, the former operations manager at Spring Mill Bread Company in Takoma Park. “It took a while for me to take our menu and extract the items that I wanted from around the region and to be able to cook 90% of the dishes as vegan or vegetarian. I am a vegetarian of over 20 years. It was very important to me to solve the problem of making sure that everyone who walks into the door is fed and satisfied.”

Joof says getting the flavors correct is vital to him, but there are some obstacles to overcome regarding shipping and importing certain ingredients. “Authenticity is very, very important to me,” he said. “You try as hard as you can to maintain the taste and quality of the food. There are some things that aren’t allowed to enter the U.S., so some things may be different, but we find a way to work it out.”

Operating the restaurant got a bit more difficult after that first year when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. For Joof, the pandemic has been both extremely challenging and a chance to learn. “We had a full year of business bliss in 2019,” Joof said. “It was an excellent year for the first time around, but then by March 2020, when the pandemic hit, I honestly thought it would only be three or four months and we’d weather the storm, but it’s been two years.”

But through weathering that storm, Joof has learned to be resilient in what’s commonly a very difficult industry, even without a global pandemic. “I used the pandemic as a learning tool to see where the mistakes were being made and where I could improve,” Joof said. “I learned a lot on how to maneuver myself on people’s experience with the cuisine.”

For Joof, the location at 8000 Flower Ave. in Takoma Park was an incredibly important one. “I’m hoping that with this location, which is in a residential area, that I am creating a resemblance of ‘Cheers,’ where people don’t have to drive and they can take an evening walk to come grab a glass of wine and dessert and enjoy themselves,” he said. “The location used to be a convenience store for 10 years before I got my hands on it. And to me it was a blank canvas.”

Staying in Takoma Park was particularly essential for his restaurant. “I chose Takoma Park because I found that this is the only place, I would risk this venture knowing that my shortcomings would be overlooked,” he said. “The people are more curious here, more warm and more appreciative in most cases.”

Despite fighting through a global pandemic just over a year after opening, Joof remains confident that his restaurant is filling a special desire for the area by offering high-quality dishes from a region he’s passionate about: “There’s something so gratifying about having an idea, conceptualizing it, bringing it to fruition, watching it germinate and having someone come in from as far as Pennsylvania, saying ‘I’ve read about your restaurant’ and they sit down and dine and you can see satisfaction on their faces. That’s a drug you can’t find anywhere; it’s something you create.” To check out Mansa Kunda’s menu, visit


This article was featured in the February 2022 Newsletter. Visit the Takoma Park Newsletter webpage to see full list of past newsletters.