I had been chatty while placing my order with Mensah. But after peeling the lid off my disposable bowl, I went quiet. I was the only one in the restaurant that afternoon, so when Mensah asked how I was doing, I reassured her with genuine enthusiasm.
“I’m going in!” I said, popping my head up for just long enough to deliver the message before happily sucking the marrow out of a piece of oxtail as Mensah laughed from the open kitchen.
Two of the most comforting meals I’ve enjoyed this winter came at the narrow black tables in the space Mensah opened in April 2023, a step up from the pop-ups and farmers market stalls she’s been running for about four years. I’m not deeply familiar with West African food. My only sentimental attachment comes with recency bias. But at times that I felt myself flagging, after long bike rides up 14th Street NW in rain and the winter wind, Mensah’s cooking was a bone-warming, life-affirming pick-me-up.
Mensah, 45, will tell you she’s not trying to serve dishes the same way you’d find them in Accra, the home of both her parents before they moved to the United States and had her. She’s scaled back the spice level in some dishes, preemptively removing reservations from any clientele with preconceived notions about West African food. But making it too tame wouldn’t feel true to herself or her family’s culture, particularly with Hedzole’s jollof rice, groundnut soup or red red, a lively black-eyed pea stew.
“I can’t make it not spicy because that’s part of the enjoyment. … And I think with West African cuisine, it’s like salt to us,” she said.
The menu at Hedzole is a reflection of three main influences: Mensah’s mother’s home cooking, the American customer and the African diaspora. The tagline for Hedzole says “Pan-African soul.” Mensah stews oxtail, not traditionally a protein paired with jollof rice, as a nod to Jamaican carryouts; the Caribbean nation and Ghana have a deep cultural connection. Mensah avoids seasoning with allspice so she can serve a clove-packed version all her own. She’ll playfully take a dig at Nigerian jollof for using Maggi bouillon, a Swiss product, but she’s not drawing hard lines, either.
“People make claims about who has the best jollof rice, you know, is it Nigeria or is it Ghana?” Mensah said. “And honestly, we didn’t create any of those borders. And we’re all very interconnected.”
Each bowl at Hedzole starts out vegan with a choice of rice: jollof, coconut or a waakye (a mixture of beans and rice, which is tinted charcoal from the inclusion of black-eyed peas). Customers can then add a vegetable (kale or vinegar-dressed cabbage) and a sauce: tomato gravy; jerk barbecue; or spinach and agushie (ground melon seed) stew with shito, a thick Ghanaian hot sauce that Mensah’s mother, Constance Baddoo Mensah, prepares with habaneros and Thai chiles. If you want a protein, you can add stewed oxtails, stewed chicken or baked salmon.
My first visit brought the jollof and oxtails, served in a rich dark gravy with fried plantains and side of vinegar-dressed cabbage. I found more plantains in a cup of red red, adding sweet contrast to the spicy black-eyed peas cooked with tomato, palm oil and habanero pepper. Sobolo, a hibiscus-based drink, caught my eye with its purplish red color. I wasn’t prepared for the wallop of ginger and clove, but I kept sipping.
When I came back with a friend, we tried the groundnut soup. Peanut butter barely thickens the tomato broth to a latte-like consistency. I found myself picking up the pace with my spoon as my lips tingled. Part of the experience is also pulling bites of a ball of fufu that Mensah instructed me to let dissolve in my mouth. I savored the “swallow,” as the class of dumpling is called, allowing the cassava and plantain mash to dissolve in my throat with zero discomfort.
Born in D.C. and raised in Alexandria, Mensah loved watching PBS cooking shows with her mother. She wouldn’t describe her African parents as particularly strict, and she felt freedom in the kitchen that has carried over into her adult life.
Mensah, who previously worked in client relations in the health care IT sector, said she’d been talking about a move into a hospitality career for at least 10 years. She got serious about it in 2017, soliciting feedback on her recipes from family and friends. In 2022, after two years of farmers markets and festivals and a residency at the Urbanspace food hall in Tysons Galleria, she quit her job and went all in on Hedzole.
“It just got to a point where I didn’t care how great the salary was or what type of salary I could command,” she said. “It wasn’t fulfilling anymore.”
When her food business was just in the dream stage, Mensah said, she didn’t think she’d be the one cooking. Over time, she realized “I have to do it, because I don’t see anyone doing it the way I wanted to be doing it.”
She also thought she’d have to fuse more American soul food into the equation. More recently, she felt customers were ready to embrace African influences; the public’s tolerance for spice had grown. West African food has been labeled the next trend by media for years, and fast-casual innovations like ChopnBlok in Houston or Spice Kitchen in Brentwood, Md., have only accelerated that notion.
For Mensah, this way of cooking isn’t a trend; it’s her life. Her father just marked his 51st year of living in the United States. She said it’s important to recognize these cultures have been around “forever,” even if a growing appreciation for African art and music is now helping direct the spotlight toward food. Where her father’s generation may have felt a need to dress down and assimilate, she’s sensed a freeing shift.
“Even growing up, I always felt like I was African at home and Black outside,” Mensah said. “And now as an adult, I embrace all of those things. I’m all of those things all of the time.”
5505 Colorado Ave. NW; (202) 885-9831; hedzoleafroeats.com.
Hours: 1 to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Nearest Metro: Georgia Ave. Hedzole is located along the 14th Street Metrobus route.
Prices: $4 to $22.50 for sides and bowls.