The lack of interesting, non-chain dining options in the suburbs is a frequently voiced Twin Cities lament. For those who sing this chorus, a visit to Tawakal restaurant in Burnsville will definitely prove a spirit lifter. This small strip-mall storefront serves up a smattering of East African specialties that are notable for their fresh quality, low prices, substantial portion sizes, and authenticity. Co-owner Yussuf Shafie, a transplanted Kenyan in his mid-20s, is a gracious and enthusiastic host of the first order and a wonderful guide. And considering the numerous unfamiliar items on the menu, having someone who is willing to help with the education process is definitely a benefit. So, too, is the comprehensive picture menu.
Still, the construct of a meal here is pretty straightforward. For one standard component, a starch, you can choose between four alternatives. The first is fragrant basmati rice pilaf mined with an assortment of aromatics such as coriander, cardamom, and cloves. The second, often a surprise to first-time explorers of Somali menus, is spaghetti—a reflection of the one-time colonization of Somalia by the Italians. Noodles are classically al dente and lightly coated with a tomato sauce that supports rather than overpowers the paired meats and fish. The third option, which also can be ordered as an entrée, is creamy fettuccine Alfredo, another Italian holdover. And finally, there is an unusual African bread called kay kay. This side, made up of strips of fried chapati bread that have been sautéed and sauced, was pretty bland and tasteless and not at all a crowd pleaser.
A second facet of most meals is some form of bread. Tawakal bakes most of its own goods and offers more choices than I’ve ever encountered in an African restaurant. The list of options includes the sour, spongy Ethiopian flatbread called injera, a couple of griddled choices of chapati and bur, and a couple of untried breads called mulawah and moffo.
Then there are the proteins that, upon request, can be mixed and matched with the starches and breads. The standout was the goat—hacked pieces of bone-in meat that are roasted for several hours and then finished on a grill. If you haven’t tried this increasingly popular meat, Tawakal’s version provides an excellent introduction. It’s not overly fatty or gamey, and the seasonings are well-matched. The thinly pounded, spice-rubbed fried steak, a satisfying platter of roasted chicken, and a simple but fresh-tasting grilled tilapia are also well worthwhile. The least engaging entrées were the beef and chicken suqaar—a traditional Somali stew of curried meat and vegetables. Between its jumbled appearance and lack of forward flavor, there just wasn’t anything to recommend it. For the record, there is a sampler platter listed as “Sport,” but my recommendation is to simply order what sounds good à la carte.
Rounding out the menu are a pleasant house iceberg lettuce salad with a ranch-style dressing, an assortment of fresh fruit smoothies (for some strange reason, one was served at room temperature), and a gyros sandwich. Also of note, the sambusas, fist-size turnovers filled with a lightly spicy mixture of curried ground beef that emerge crisp and piping hot from the fryer, are definitely among the top tier to be found in the area. And if they aren’t proffered, be sure to ask if you can have a taste of the truly incredible goat broth soup, a cup of hot sauce, and the traditional banana that East Africans use to add a fruity dimension to their meals.
Tawakal is very much a hole-in-the-wall kind of place where Formica tables, a collection of booths, and a TV tuned to CNN are the order of the day. The clientele is largely a mixture of cab drivers, traditionally garbed guests, and a smattering of takeout diners. Nonetheless, there’s a welcoming spirit and this is a dining adventure the whole family can enjoy. Just don’t be surprised if the little ones follow tradition and start eating the spaghetti and such with their hands. Why not? Go with the African flow. 12609 Nicollet Ave., Burnsville, 952-500-8954, tawakalburnsville.com