Tawakal (Burnsville, MN)

Tawakal: Mush Mush
Back to Somali food, back to Burnsville. Tawakal is located a little further south from the Twin Cities than Nawal: going north or south on Highway 35, you take the Burnsville Parkway east, turn left on Nicollet and it’s almost immediately on the right in a strip mall anchored, as is the law in Minnesota, by a Caribou Coffee. It’s much more established than Nawal is: it’s been around a while, has been written up in various Twin Cities publications (the pieces are pasted to a wall) and abuts a grocery store and boutique of the same name. But what is the food like? Read on. 

If you’ve visited many Somali restaurants in the Twin Cities you’ll probably have noted that there isn’t a tremendous amount of menu variation among them. So it is with Nawal and Tawakal—for the most part. There are a few items on the menu at Tawakal that are not available at Nawal, but the difference is largely moot: all my attempts to order them have failed; indeed, there’s one dish (“Ugali with Sukuma wiki”) that I’ve asked for hopefully on every visit and have been told each time that they don’t have it in a tone that suggests I am a lunatic for imagining that they might. What they reliably have on every occasion is all the stuff that’s reliably available at Nawal (though on at least one occasion they did not have sambusas) and on Fridays they have a special of mango chicken, which I did in fact manage to order.

If the menus are near identical, the cooking is not—though the differences are not vast. The rice that comes optionally with most dishes is better at Tawakal—it tastes more like biryani rice—though it isn’t prepared identically each time (as to whether this is because different cooks do it differently or because there’s some variation depending on what you get it as a side with, I cannot say). Also different is the sauce/chutney they serve with pretty much everything. At Nawal this is a spicy green chutney a la the North Indian staple; at Tawakal it’s an altogether sourer version, though also hot. Both are good. Among other dishes, I guess I would say that I preferred the more curry-like suqaar at Nawal and the goat at Tawakal, which was prepared slightly less dry (in terms of the sauce, not the meat). And I think we prefer the sambusas at Nawal, though that may be a function of the fact that on the occasions we’ve got them there they were fried pretty much to order.

Of the two things I’ve had at Tawakal that are either not available at Nawal or escaped my notice, I’d say the Friday special mango chicken is avoidable—not bad, but somewhat cloying; and that the mush-mush—not on the menu but by the counter (I pointed and asked)—is very good but more than somewhat greasy. Pictures of and more comments on the food and the market next door follow. Scroll down for comments on other aspects of the restaurant that I like less than at Nawal.

Prices are about the same as at Nawal: not low in the abstract but low for the amount of food you’re given. Despite the two restaurants basically being a push, however, I have to say I prefer the atmosphere at Nawal. Some of this has to do with the layout of the restaurants. Whereas Nawal is bright, with lots of natural light, and has a large open kitchen, Tawakal is a darker, narrower space with a boxed-off kitchen abutting a long, galley-like seating area. And while there is a larger, more open seating area by the door as you enter, I’ve yet to see anyone there. It’s entirely possible, of course, that it’s much busier at dinner (we’ve always gone at lunch); but it does also seem like a lot of people get food to go. And on two occasions there seemed to be people getting food to go in rather large quantities. They also, smartly, have a number of non-Somali/African items on the menu—Philly cheesesteak and so on—and perhaps for that reason they also seem to attract a lot of take-out custom from people who seem to work nearby. The other thing I would say is that while the people at Tawakal are perfectly friendly, the vibe at Nawal seems more welcoming and social. This may again be a function of the layouts.

I am unlikely to get to any more Somali restaurants before I leave for London in a couple of weeks but I do wonder if there are any in the Twin Cities metro area that offer a more variegated menu of Somali foods. If you look around online there appears to be far more to Somali food than is served at places like Tawakal and Nawal. Of course, this is also true of Indian restaurants all over the US. If you can recommend places that have some offerings off the beaten track please let me know. On my return from the UK I do also hope to get to the taqueria in this same strip mall: Hidalgo; and perhaps also to Nha Sang, which unpromisingly bills itself as an Asian fusion restaurant but which apparently has a section of Tibetan specialties. If you know more about either of these places as well please write in below.

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