Restaurant review: Riziki Swahili Grill takes patrons on a tasty culinary trip to Africa

G.A. Benton
Special to The Columbus Dispatch
Sunday fun day and beef pilau with greens at Riziki Swahili Grill

While enjoying dish after delicious dish from Riziki Swahili Grill, my Swahili vocabulary appreciably increased. The improvement isn't so boast-worthy, though, as my previous Swahili — a prominent language in East Africa — was essentially limited to the greeting “jambo,” which I learned from a childhood friend; “uhuru,” which I learned from watching “Star Trek,” and which means “freedom”; and the African American-culture-celebrating holiday Kwanzaa, a word derived from a harvest-referencing Swahili phrase.

To these I have recently added terms, such as mishkaki (kebab) and kachumbari (literally, “pickle”), that have become easy for me to remember because they pop up frequently at Riziki Swahili Grill. As you might’ve guessed, I’ve been popping up frequently at Riziki, too.

An endearing operation in the Northland area specializing in the food of Zanzibar — an island group politically connected to Tanzania (Tanzania borders mainland African countries such as Kenya and Uganda) — 2-year-old Riziki has a humble exterior that shouldn’t deter newcomers.

That's because great food awaits beyond Riziki’s small strip-mall entrance, which leads to a bare-bones interior with charming elements of aqua-and-yellow walls, African and maritime allusions and straw hut-like decorations. Dining room service is currently on hold, so plan on phoning ahead for takeout and waiting for about 30 minutes.  

And plan on easy-to-love, good-bang-for-your-buck dishes bursting with widely accessible flavors. For comparison sake, Riziki’s Zanzibari-influenced fare shares characteristics with Mediterranean and mild Indian food.

Beef pilau at Riziki Swahili Grill

Appetizer-wise, the wild sambusas ($2.50) aren’t particularly wild, but they are lovely: delightfully brittle, samosa-like pastries stuffed with ground meat (equally appealing chicken or beef) leavened with onion and cilantro.

Several wonderful stew-style entrees are offered, too. They’re generally huge, served with abundant good basmati rice fragrant with saffron and/or cinnamon, and feature seared-and-tender meats drenched in addictive sauces enriched with creamy (but cholesterol-free) coconut milk and long-cooked onions.

Most of these entrees come with Riziki’s kachumbari (a vinegary and refreshing cabbage, tomato and onion salad) plus some of Riziki’s excellent sides (most are $5.99 a la carte), such as deeply savory pinto beans, or spinach, stewed in coconut milk; kale, cooked with tomatoes, that tasted like spinach; naturally sweet sauteed cabbage; and mild but delicious and distinct beef or chicken curries that aren’t spiced in typical local-Indian-restaurant fashion.  

One such wonderful entree is the beef pilau ($12.99). Mine was missing its advertised peas, but it wasn’t missing anything else — including its advertised kachumbari and its unadvertised, but greatly appreciated, comforting-yet-intense flavors.

The zesty and tomatoey chicken biriani (similar to an Indian biryani, $12.99), another rice-and-meat dish, was also outstanding. Like the beef pilau, it’s highly compatible with Riziki’s first-rate (and perfect for sauce-scooping) chapati flatbread ($2.25). 

Ditto for the enormous whole fish-of-the day ($15.99): overachieving, succulent tilapia with crispy, cooked-to-dark skin and a tangy delectable sauce tasting of coconut milk and concentrated tomatoes. This is a good entree to try with ugali — think stiff grits, made with masa, that taste like corn tortillas. 

Whole fish (fish-of-the-day) with ugali

Even if it didn’t come with two of Riziki’s marvelous mishkaki (smoky, juicy and tender kebabs of garlicky beef or tangy-from-yogurt chicken; $12.99 as entrees), the zege platter ($12.99) would be a fine brunch dish of eggs scrambled with thick and plentiful, house-made fries.

Brunch fans should definitely target Riziki’s Sunday fun day ($12.99), too. Available only on Sundays, this is a feeds-two Zanzibar classic of soothing potato soup brightened by turmeric (and likely mango) and garnished with a slew of hearty toppings that include mishkaki, sambusas, potato fritters and crunchy chips.

Also known as “urojo'' and “Zanzibar mix,” that comforting bowl of locally rare soup is a delicious reminder that, because food is entwined with language and geography, restaurant dining is often like having a meal of cultural anthropology.   

At a glance

Where: Riziki Swahili Grill

Location: 1872 Tamarack Circle South, Northland area

Contact: 614-547-7440