South American restaurant with West African flair opens in downtown DC

Moi Moi’s white tablecloth dining room features a mural of an African village. Photo courtesy of Howsoon Cham.

Chief Howsoon “HO” Cham, son of diplomats, came to the United States from Gambia in 1987 to study international affairs at Bethany College in West Virginia. (The person who literally stamped his visa was Linda Thomas-Greenfield, now the US Ambassador to the United Nations.) He started working in restaurants while in college, eventually taking on chef positions in restaurants. Southern favorites such as Georgia Brown’s and Vidalia before opening his own establishments, including Latin-Caribbean Red Ginger in Georgetown and Lincoln Park Kitchen & Wine Bar in Capitol Hill.

“I’ve worked in all kinds of restaurants,” says Cham, who took a break from the industry for the past two years to travel the world. “I’ve never cooked food from my hometown.” That will change with the debut of Moi Moi, an American restaurant “with a West African accent” opening Saturday, January 15 in downtown DC.

Moi Moi takes its name from a seafood mash bean cake, which Cham describes as a “West African tamale”. “It’s something I ate when I was a kid. It is a street food in The Gambia. I wanted to bring the food that I grew up eating,” says Cham. Their menu version uses fresh mackerel.

There are many historical culinary connections between West Africa and the southern United States, given the flavors and dishes brought to the United States by slaves in the 1700s. Cham recalls a time where he made peanut soup for Baltimore celebrity chef Cindy Wolf, for whom he worked at Georgia Brown’s. “Cindy was like, ‘How do you know that? This is what I eat at my house in Charleston. I’m like, ‘Cindy, this is what we eat every day at home.’ We call it peanut soup, they call it peanut butter soup,” Cham recalls.

A few dishes on the Read more South menu: fried green tomatoes with charred okra relish or chicken livers with potlikker demi-glace. Others lean towards West Africa: thieboudienne, a traditional Senegalese jollof rice dish with stuffed porgy, or pepper soup with oxtail and goat cheese. Meanwhile, many are Cham-specific combinations – think suya-rubbed steak or Berber-spiced lamb chops with cassava leaf pesto and mint. For dessert, find coconut brioche bread pudding or millet ‘chackry’, a popular pudding-like Gambian dessert.

The cocktails, which range from margaritas to boulevardiers, are named after members of Cham’s family as well as important people and places across Africa. Other nods to its roots include murals of an African village on the walls of the 100-seat white fabric dining room, which includes a seating area and seven-seat bar.

Moi Moi isn’t planning on taking any bookings, but Cham hopes a blast from her past will stop: ‘How ironic would it be if Linda Greenfield came down here from the White House with Biden?’

Me me. 1627 K St. Northwest. 202-303-0125.

food editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind DC’s food and drink scene. before joining Washingtonian as of July 2016, she was a food editor and Young & Hungry columnist at the Washington City Paper. She is originally from Colorado and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.

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