East African Cuisine in Downtown Olympia

Note to readers — the restaurant named Shirro’s appears to have closed as of September 16, 2018. Our best wishes to the restauranteurs and our apologies to readers.

By Jennifer Crain

As a child in Kenya, Mercy Kariuki-McGee fed wood into a traditional fireplace while her older siblings cooked. As a helper, she got to taste the base of each dish, usually a combination of meat, onions, spices and other aromatics. It shaped the way she thinks about cooking. “If the base doesn’t taste good, you’re going to really struggle with the rest of the dish,” she says.

She puts that principleto practice every day at Shirro’s, the East African restaurant she and her husband opened last summer in downtown Olympia. Staff members have learned to taste the food early. They share the first piece of fry bread every day, a tasty perk of the job but also insurance against a bad batch.

Kariuki-McGee and her husband, Matt McGee, never expected to own a restaurant and event space in the former Ben Moore’s. They were familiar with the space: Their Afro-fusion band, Mazigazi, played it often. When Ben Moore’s announced it was selling, the McGees and other friends and patrons gathered to say goodbye. They thought that was it. When the sale fell through, however, the former owner surprised them by asking if they’d consider buying. Because the two have a heart for live music and for serving people the food of East Africa, they ended up saying yes.

If diners are familiar with African food, it’s usually Ethiopian, Kariuki-McGee says. The food of her homeland is, by contrast, influenced by Middle Eastern flavors. Meat is used as a seasoning, and there are plenty of plant-based options such as curried mung and moth beans — a vegan favorite. Other common seasonings include coriander, curry powder, pepper, turmeric and lots of fresh cilantro. Papa Joe’s, a spinach and kale stew slow-cooked with cashews, chicken and coconut milk, is one of Shirro’s most popular dishes. Cocktails are also based on East African flavors. Shirro’s version of an old-fashioned is made with bitters, bourbon and garam-masala simple syrup.

In addition to African music, upcoming events reflect the couple’s desire to make Olympia rich in music diversity. Look for alt rock, blues, emo, hip hop, indie, punk and rap. The owners rent the space for private groups to hold community events for up to 200 guests. The front of the restaurant is open to all ages. The bar, dining space and performance area are 21-and-over spaces.



Shirro’s Restaurant & Pub


6-11 p.m. Wednesdays,

6 p.m. – 1 a.m. Thursdays,

5 p.m. – 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays


Starters $5-$8, entrées $11-$14, cocktails, $8-$12


112 Fourth Ave. W



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