Yesterday I had one of the best meals I’ve had in years, far from downtown Seattle, in a Tukwila food court. Next to a street that’s almost a highway, in a building that blends in with the library and community center, I sat on a plastic chair at a small table and ate with a plastic fork from a compostable food container. The food I ordered surprised me when I first looked at the menu; it wasn’t cheap. Dishes ranged from $15 to $20, but there was a selection of four different cuisines that are hard to find in this city: two from Africa, one from Afghanistan, and one from Cambodia. After reading a description of the different meals each vendor offered, I chose food from Gambia and Senegal made by Afella Jollof Catering.

Chicken kebabs and rice is a dish that is simple enough to be risky. There’s nowhere to hide; it rises or falls on freshness and flavor. I took a bite and stopped thinking until I’d eaten every last scrap in the food box. When it was all gone, I had a new food obsession–jollof rice. The chicken kebab was loaded with flavor but the rice was addictive.

“It’s broken rice,” the lady behind the counter told me, “We blend our own spices.” Suddenly I realized the price of this dish was too low–I’d pay a lot more to have those flavors in my mouth again. 

October 2020 was a bleak time when many Seattle restaurants went dark, others closed for good, and isolated residents resorted to Door Dash. Restaurant empires in this food-obsessed city struggled to survive by pivoting to take-out, their expensively designed settings empty and useless. It was an unlikely, if not insane, time to enter the food business, but this was when Spice Bridge began.

The brain child of a group called The Food Innovation Network, Spice Bridge has a mission. This is a restaurant incubator, a clean, well-lighted food court where a rotating group of female food entrepreneurs have kitchen and counter space. The setting isn’t elaborate but it doesn’t need to be. People don’t come for the ambiance. They’re here for food that they can’t get anywhere else, food that hasn’t been adapted for American taste buds. 

Once years ago I was in a Seattle taxi that was filled with an odor I’d never smelled before. It was rich and aromatic and unidentifiable. When I asked the driver about it, he said, “It’s my food. We use spices that you don’t.” I’ve been haunted by that wonderful smell ever since. Now thanks to Spice Bridge, I can taste where it came from, any time I want. I can’t wait to go back.