Tachibana Sheikh decided he wanted to open a restaurant when he was five. Living in Kenya, one of 22 siblings, Sheikh grew up in the kitchen, cooking for his family of chefs and merchants: the Sheikh family owned restaurants, a market, and a farm, while his aunt operated a candy shop. It’s been years since his family lived in Kenya, but he still misses the food of his childhood — he missed it enough to open his own cart.
“I wanted Kenyan food, and I couldn’t just go home and have my mom make me Kenyan food,” he says. “I love my mom’s cooking; she’s a great chef. I’ve been trying to recreate it.”
At Maisha, his brand new cart in Sellwood’s Piknik Park pod, Sheikh sells many of the dishes he ate growing up, the son of Somali parents who lived in Kenya: sukuma wiki, a braised kale dish with tomatoes and cumin; matoke curry, hunks of banana bathing in a sour yellow coconut milk curry; the salty, earthy-spiced bariis, a rice dish he tops with “beef” and potato suugo, a chunky Somalian sauce. The one caveat — None of the “meats” served at Maisha are actually made of meat; in fact, there aren’t any animal products on the menu at Maisha. But don’t call it a “vegan” cart.
“I don’t like the title vegan,” he says with a wince. “There’s just so much tied to it. You Americans and your titles.”
Sheikh left Kenya when he was eight, eventually living in London for three years. After London, the Sheikhs landed in New York state, eventually landing in Beaverton. Sheikh spent those years dreaming of opening his own restaurant: As a young adult, he spent his days working in banking and evenings working in restaurant kitchens, taking classes in the time in between. In 2017, he hosted his first pop-up in his apartment building; a lot went wrong, including a burnt spatula that trigged a call to the fire department, but he was hooked. “I had planned for everything, but not that,” he says, with a chuckle. “But even then, I stepped back, and I said, ‘I’m loving this. Let’s go.’”
In 2018, Sheikh started his pop-up, Onjeni Ya Kenya, testing recipes as he saved for his business. When the pandemic hit, he was able to take a second to really focus on opening a food cart. “COVID actually helped make it happen.”
Maisha opened on September 1, and Sheikh has been spending the last month honing in on his recipes and structures. For example, instead of making his bariis with whole spices, he went for ground ones, for ease of eating; he’s still hit with a blast of spice — cardamom and cumin — as he opens his rice cooker. “I really disliked bariis as a kid, because I hated biting into the whole spices,” he says. “Who has time to bob and weave through their rice?”
The aforementioned matoke curry is best served with a side of Kenyan chapati, a flaky flatbread that can pick up hunks of banana and root vegetables. The core stews and braises on the menu — the matoke curry, the sukuma wiki, and the beef and potato suugo — are also available stuffed in mandazi, little fry bread pockets filled with herbs and served with a slice of lemon. “In Kenya, in almost every dish, you’ll find cilantro and lemon,” he says.
The food cart is still in its first month, but Sheikh is still looking forward: One day, he wants to open an entire pod, with food carts set aside for students to try out concepts before opening their own carts. “I appreciate all that has come my way,” he says. “I was raised to think, ‘If you can’t afford it, don’t look at it,” ... I want to give opportunities to people who are serious, like me, without having to worry about money.”
Maisha is now open within the Piknik Park pod, at 1122 SE Tacoma Street.