Out of Africa
The emerging African food scene has restaurants cropping up everywhere
Minnesota is home to the largest community of Somali immigrants in the country. With waves of new arrivals, one thing sure to follow—as it did with the local Ethiopian and Vietnamese populations—is restaurants where transplants can enjoy the food of their homeland and the company of their compatriots.
The newest and most ambitious entrant recently opened on East Lake Street. The Safari Restaurant and Banquet Center is owned by Sade and Jamal Hashi, brothers who also own the Safari Express stand in Midtown Global Market and the former Safari restaurant on Nicollet. This Safari is a welcoming albeit ungussied café that has quickly become a popular gathering spot for Somalis. On any given evening, the sturdy wooden tables and corner booths are populated with groups engaged in lively conversations as they enjoy their homeland cuisine.
At different points in its history, Somalia has been occupied by the French, British, and Italians. In part, the food reflects these foreign cultures, most notably with the use of spaghetti as a common side dish. Here the combination of al dente homemade noodles topped with a slightly spicy sauce that I surmise includes harissa is delicious. Other Italian-influenced choices include fettucine Alfredo, grilled Chicken Fantastic topped with cream sauce, and costo and vegetables—a Somali version of bruschetta featuring soft, lightly toasted bread slices topped with chopped tomatoes, onions, peppers, and carrots. Another Mediterranean-inspired starter is foule madam, an enjoyable refried bean–looking dip made from crushed fava beans, tomatoes, peppers, and spices and served with pita bread triangles.
Based on the handful of sandwiches and entrees I tried, my impression is that onions and green peppers are ubiquitous ingredients, seasoning is modest, and budget cuts of meat are the rule. My favorite dish was the busketti—large, thin slices of grilled, marinated beef served with peppers and onions. I wasn’t keen on Safari’s Famous Ke’key, a rather bland casserole of broad, slightly crunchy noodles made from chapatti flour and dry nuggets of dark-meat chicken. Goat is a popular Somali food, and it’s offered here two ways: as a roasted goat cutlet and a curried goat. Although the thin slices in the latter were tender, the taste of curry was all but non-existent.
It was a bit of a challenge to coax any guidance out of our otherwise very pleasant server. For example, if I hadn’t known that fresh squeezed pineapple and mango juices were a favorite at the old Safari, I wouldn’t have known they were available here. That also seems to be the case for Safari’s knockout meat turnovers, called sambusas; although they weren’t available on my visit, they are often offered and I get the feeling one needs to ask.
While it requires some pluck to try a place like Safari, it’s a good opportunity to experience an increasingly important part of the local melting pot.
Flamingo in St. Paul is another Twin Cities spot that offers an introduction to Somali cuisine. Frewoini Haile and Shegitu Kebede, a charming pair of single moms and African refugees, purchased this hard-to-spot eatery in early 2010. The Somali options on the menu are largely limited to combinations of protein and spaghetti, which, although not boldly seasoned, are pleasant and filling. The Eritrean and Ethiopian specialties are a better bet, however. A solid Eritrean option is the casserole of cubed lamb, carrots, broccoli, and onions cooked in a mild curry sauce and served with a heap of fluffy rice. Although the lamb has a somewhat chewy character, I found myself continuously wanting to spear just one more piece. One of the best Ethiopian options is The Traveler, a combo platter with a mix of three items: seasoned lentils, zilzil wot (a satisfying simmer of seasoned beef strips and veggies), and one of the best Ethiopian stews I’ve ever tasted—a piquant mixture of smoky beef and goat with onions, tomatoes, and sliced chili peppers. The Ethiopian dishes are served with the traditional injera bread, made here with whole wheat flour and so good that even injeraphobes are likely to convert. The ground beef sambusas are also a home run; they’re by far the crispiest, tastiest, and best version I’ve had locally.
Flamingo is a relatively small place, with décor that includes photo portraits and assorted homeland mementos. The warmth and charm of the owners caps off the experience and is impossible not to appreciate.
A visit to City Afrique is arguably this area’s most adventuresome African dining experience. This storefront café is the only Minneapolis restaurant featuring the food of Liberia. The menu is a short one—on any given night you’ll find two or three appetizers, such as fried plantains and excellent spicy chicken wings, and a handful of entrees. Several key ingredients—such as kittily, fufu, and attieke—aren’t well known, and it was difficult to get a good explanation, so ordering can be a bit of a dice roll. Compounding the challenge of appreciating a meal here is the fishy-smelling tilapia, the overwhelmingly fiery nature of the one soup on the menu, and the use of often bony, fatty, gelatinous cuts of mystery meats. While nothing here registered a “keeper” score on my hit meter, Andrew Zimmern might feel right at home.
WHERE TO FIND THEM
The Safari Restaurant and Banquet Center: 3010 4th Ave. S., Mpls., 612-353-5341
Flamingo: 490 N. Syndicate St., St. Paul, 651-917-9332
City Afrique: 4326 Lyndale Ave. N., Mpls., 612-535-6084