Kingdom is best described as a Gambian/Senagalese soul food restaurant with a menu featuring African and Mediterranean dishes along with American favorites all made from scratch. Whether visiting for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or carryout, you’re sure to find a favorite dish.
Owner and chef Mahamadou Tunkara, best known by customers as Mahamad or King, explains the philosophy behind the menu. “I grew up in The Gambia, which is in West Africa. The African comfort foods, such as fufu, benachin, domada, and yassa on the Taste of Africa menu, are recipes I used to make with my mother and grandmother for our large family. The rest of the menu is made up of food that I know Americans love to eat based on my experience of working in many restaurants over the past 40 years. I like to make people happy, so I want to be able to serve them what they want to eat when they want to eat it. That’s why I serve breakfast all day and have many things on the menu. I also serve large portions, so people are satisfied and have enough to take home to enjoy later.”
Mahamad is no stranger to hard work. His life experiences shaped who he is and tell the story of how he ended up owning a restaurant on Madison’s north side. “I was born in The Gambia and was the fourth-oldest child of a very large family. There were 14 children in the family while I was living at home. My father owned a 40-acre farm next to the River Gambia in Basse. Rice was grown year-round, except during the three-month spring rainy season, when peanuts were grown and harvested to sell to the government.
“There were a lot of responsibilities associated with operating the farm and caring for the large household. The older children were all expected to have a role. From age nine, I helped on the farm and was my mother’s kitchen helper. This is when and where my culinary training actually started. I learned prep cooking by slicing, dicing, and peeling. By going to the market for my mother, I gained purchasing skills to select the best food at the best price, and learned what ingredients were needed for a recipe. The daily cooking for the family that I did alongside my mother and grandmother taught me their traditional African recipes, which are the foundation for Kingdom’s menu.”
It was Gambian tradition for young men to go away to school in Egypt. “Six months after I turned 13, I was sent to live on a student compound,” says Mahamad. “It’s a good thing I learned to cook because I was responsible for my own cooking and laundry. I lived at the school for seven years without going home.
“My father paid for school, but I had to earn my own spending money for miscellaneous expenses and traveling during my school breaks. This made me hustle to find a job and build job skills just to survive. The first of many odd jobs was as a dishwasher. Eventually, I learned to cook in professional kitchens at the Hilton Hotel and Sheraton Inn. They did in-house butchering in order to get specialty cuts of chicken, lamb, and goat meat, so I also learned to be a butcher. I went to college in Cairo, Egypt, and my cooking jobs during these years added Mediterranean cuisine to my repertoire.”
Mahamad moved to America after college in 1988. “I got married, started a family, and eventually settled in the Bronx. Over 11 years, I often worked 16-hour days at one or two jobs at a time in hotel restaurants and fast food restaurants. This is how I quickly became experienced in American favorites and breakfast menus.”
In 2001, Mahamad was working at a fast food restaurant on the bottom floor of the World Trade Center. “On September 11, the manager was being lazy, so he sent me to get change at a bank four blocks away, even though it was his job. As I walked there, I was upset that he didn’t go himself. While I was in the bank, the first plane hit the building where I worked. As I started to walk back to work, I saw the second plane hit. As I got closer, police wouldn’t let me or anyone else in or out of the area. I watched and waited, and couldn’t believe it when the buildings collapsed. My grumbling changed to thankfulness that this errand saved my life. I did the manager’s errand and got to live, and he died. The next day I found out that all of my coworkers on the shift that morning had died.”
Approximately six months later, Mahamad moved his wife and three children to Sun Prairie to live near his wife’s sister and to start over where they felt safer. “My jobs in Madison eventually turned back to working in the food industry. One day, I decided to start my own food business. From 2010 to 2013, I owned and operated Burgers and Ethnic Food B-B-Q at West Towne Mall. When FEED Kitchens opened on North Sherman Avenue in 2013, I leased kitchen space until 2016 to make Mediterranean food for my Silk Road food cart business.
“I started Kingdom Restaurant in 2016 inside an East Washington Avenue gas station. Since January 2019, I’ve leased a former restaurant space at the Northside TownCenter and love being a part of the north side Madison neighborhood.”
Mahamad’s Gambian hospitality is experienced by everyone who walks in the door, from his friendly “Hello, my friend” greeting to his attempts to learn and remember customer names, faces, and what they like to eat. It makes everyone feel welcome. This and his kind generosity are reasons guests return again and again, and why customers become friends. If Mahamad cooks it, they will come.
Lauri Lee is a culinary herb guru and food writer living in Madison, Wisconsin.
1865 Northport Drive
Madison, WI 53704