A chef’s personal journey inspires the fare at Kingdom Restaurant

The Kingdom Restaurant menu is vast. The list barely fits on the digital displays hung at the north Madison eatery, which opened in 2018.
Mahamadou Tunkara
Photo by Sharon Vanorny

The Kingdom Restaurant menu is vast. The list barely fits on the digital displays hung at the north Madison eatery, which opened in 2018. The combination of African, Mediterranean and American fare may seem disjointed at first, but only if you haven’t met owner and chef Mahamadou Tunkara. His menu is a reflection of him and where he has cooked across the globe.

Tunkara’s African menu features dishes he learned from his mother growing up in The Gambia. “Because she had a lot of kids, I used to help her cut the vegetables, wash dishes; then from there I did a portion of the cooking,” recalls Tunkara. He would help make West African staples like benachin, a single-pot rice dish, and domada, a peanut or groundnut stew, both of which he now serves at his restaurant.

At 14, Tunkara moved to Egypt for schooling. He supported himself by washing dishes and eventually became a sous chef. Those years inspired Kingdom menu items like shawarma and kabobs.

Tunkara moved to the United States in 1987, settling in the Bronx. He often worked multiple jobs, including at fast-food joints and hotels. It was there that Tunkara learned valuable lessons on how to make American diners happy.

This is why you’ll find breakfast served all day at Kingdom, along with dozens of American classics, like burgers and popcorn shrimp. “Even if it isn’t on the menu, you ask for it, we put it together for you,” Tunkara says.

In 2012, family in the Madison area brought Tunkara to Wisconsin, where he again found himself cooking in a variety of locations, such as a gas station on East Washington Avenue and a food cart on Library Mall. Now, after working at countless restaurants across several countries, Tunkara finally feels at home at his own north Madison site, serving dishes that reflect his diverse culinary experiences.

​​Handfuls of Flavor | Fufu

fufu with meat next to it

Photo by Sharon Vanorny

Fufu, a West African staple, refers to a sticky dough traditionally eaten by hand and made from starchy crops like cassava or yams. Kingdom’s fufu is served alongside a rich stew with a choice of chicken or beef. Tunkara loves to make people happy, which is why he serves large portions. This makes for shareable dishes.

Comfort Cuisine | Yassa

Yassa in styrofoam container

Photo by Sharon Vanorny

Tunkara grew up making and eating yassa, a Senegalese dish, and it continues to be his favorite thing on the menu. The star of the dish is sweet onion, which Tunkara caramelizes with African spices, mustard, vinegar and fresh lime. This is spread across tender, baked chicken and served over rice or couscous. For lovers of African food, the flavors in Tunkara’s yassa are familiar in many ways yet very new, making this updated comfort food option a must-order at Kingdom.

Fan Favorite | Gyro Sandwich

gyro

Photo by Sharon Vanorny

Kingdom Restaurant has a wealth of regulars, and one of the crowd’s favorite menu picks is Tunkara’s take on the gyro. Seasoned and grilled lamb is piled on crispy pita bread and topped with a creamy yogurt sauce. Many Kingdom fans would suggest a pile of hot peppers to top it off. (These peppers pack quite a punch, so you might consider ordering them on the side.)

Feeding a Community
Mahamadou Tunkara puts in 12-hour days at Kingdom Restaurant. “You have to like what you do in order to survive in the restaurant business,” Tunkara says. Even through the height of the pandemic, Tunkara saw steady community support. He pays this back to the neighborhood through donations to local food drives and by feeding hungry children in his community. He recognizes the struggles area families have experienced, especially at the height of COVID-19. This was particularly apparent when kids were not physically attending school, and some families found it difficult to keep them well-fed. Tunkara has given free meals to any hungry kid, 14 or younger, who comes to the restaurant in the evenings.

Find Kingdom Restaurant: 1865 Northport Drive, 608-286-1238, kingdom-restaurant.com

Marissa DeGroot is a Madison-based freelance writer.