Immigrants from Somalia are now one of the largest ethnic groups in the Twin Cities, but Somali restaurants haven’t gained nearly as much crossover acceptance as Mexican, Vietnamese or even Thai restaurants. Race no doubt plays a part, and so do culture and location. Most of Somali restaurants are concentrated in neighborhoods with high concentrations of immigrants, and you are much less likely to find a Somali restaurant in a suburban strip mall than a taqueria or Vietnamese restaurant.
In more traditional Somali restaurants, the clientele is mainly male, with a separate seating area for women and children, often shielded by a screen. I have always been made to feel welcome when I have visited Somali restaurants, but I have sometimes felt a bit out of place – the only white customer, and the only outsider in a cafe that has the feeling of a private social club. The staff usually speaks English, but the customers are much more likely to speak Somali. For women visitors, the experience may be even more discomfiting – there are rarely any women in the cafes, and when there are, they are likely to be wearing the hijab and speaking Somali.
In spite of these obstacles, adventurous diners will find much to enjoy at Somali restaurants, and some of the newest Somali restaurants are making an effort to attract a larger and more diverse clientele. The Safari Express, inside the Midtown Global Market, won Minneapolis-St. Paul magazine’s 2010 award for Best African Restaurant, and an award for best new business from the Neighborhood Development Corporation. Owners Sade and Jamal Hashi are exceptionally outgoing and friendly, and the setting is inviting – take a table in one of the common areas, and you will be surrounded by diners from all over the world.
Safari Express recently brought Somali cuisine a new measure of mainstream acceptance – Lynne Rosetto Caspar visited the kitchen, where Jamal offered her a tour of Somali cooking.
At the Safari Express in the Midtown Global Market, most of the featured specialties are on display, and the servers gladly offer samples before you buy. The standard dishes are mostly mild or spicy stews, served over a rice pilaf, but you can also get wraps or sandwiches of beef, chicken or lamb, with few ingredients that non-Somalis would find objectionable. The chicken suquaar, sauteed with red peppers, peas, onions and other veggies is robustly spicy, but not overpowering; milder options include the curry chicken and chicken fantastik. Most entrees are $7.99 or $8.49, with half-portions available for $5.99.
The most exotic item on the menu is also the most familiar – the camel burger ($8.49), billed as the “leanest, meanest” burger in Amer. Mine consisted of a small patty, cooked well-done, topped with melted American cheese, tomato, lettuce, and a thick slice of pineapple. It tasted pretty much like any hamburger, except for the pineapple. The Hashi Brothers also recently opened the Safari Restaurant and Banquet Center at 3010 4th Ave. S., Minneapolis.
Safari Express, in the Midtown Global Market, 920 E. Lake St., 612-874-0756.
The new Afro Deli & Cafe at the African Development Center, 1939 Fifth St. (at Riverside), Minneapolis, also features Somali dishes, although they aren’t labeled as such – the Afro-steak dinner ($4.99 lunch / $7.99 dinner), a sauteed medley of chopped beef, onions and peppers served over rice tastes a lot like the dish offered on many Somali menus as beef suqaar.
I am not sure whether chicken fantastic ($4.99 / $7.99) actually originated in Somalia, but it has become a staple of local Somali restaurants – sliced roasted chicken breast in a creamy Alfredo sauce with carrots, zucchini and green beans. Also recommended are the coconut shrimp (presumably not Somali; 6 for $3.95) and the sambusas – deep-fried pockets filled with beef or lentils, onions and spices ($1.25 for one; $3.25 for three).
Afro Deli and Café, 1939 Fifth St., Minneapolis 612-871-5555
The First Cup Coffee House, a popular internet cafe in the Hi-Lake Shopping Center isn’t quite as mainstream as Safari Express and the Afro Deli, but it recently expanded into the adjacent Hiawatha Pizza, and it’s very much a work in progress. The pizzas listed on the big sign above the counter are no longer available, but according to one server, the menu will expand to include some Sudanese dishes.
In the evening, it’s likely to be crowded with Somali men, and does have that social club feeling (on one visit, a row of men was apparently preparing for prayer). It’s less crowded earlier in the day – when I stopped by recently for breakfast, I was the only customer. I had a terrific $5 breakfast that included malawah (a couple of sweet crepes), a bowl of beef sugaar and fool (pureed beans), a bowl of creamy vegetable soup, a banana (a staple at almost every Somali meal) and a cup of Somali tea, a blend of tea, steamed milk, sugar, cardamom and ginger. First Cup is worth a visit just for the tea ($1).
First Cup Cafe 2740 Minnehaha Ave # 180 Minneapolis, 612-886-2125.