It has been almost five months since our pandemic takeout runs took us anywhere but to an Asian restaurant, be it Indian, Chinese or South East Asian. But this week finds us some distance away, in terms of culinary distance if not driving miles: at Nawal, a Somali restaurant in Burnsville. I last reported on a meal there almost exactly four years ago. That was right on the heels of the announcement of Trump’s first Muslim ban. It feels very good to be posting this review just before President Biden will finally nullify all of that nonsense.
Two brief corrections of or rather supplementations of the above. The first is the description of Nawal as a Somali restaurant. Of course, it is that. But it and other immigrant restaurants like it are not just restaurants. It’s more accurate to think of it as a community hub. In normal times it’s a place where Somalis in the area can congregate and maintain a connection to their old home in their new home. During the pandemic they continue this function, not just as a restaurant doing takeout (and now limited dine-in) but offering meals to families in need. This is not a restaurant whose menu is ever going to become very expansive or innovative; they don’t offer a very wide selection of Somali dishes and it’s very far from cheffy. What they do is a limited menu of basic dishes, the kind of thing that doesn’t usually make restaurant reviewers of any kind very excited. But it’s the kind of place that anchors a community, that feeds more than the stomach and we need to recognize places like Nawal more than we usually do.
The second correction is of the statement about culinary distance from the places I have predominantly been reviewing in the last year. Yes, Somalia is on the Horn of Africa, at the opposite end of the Indian Ocean from the Indian subcontinent. But histories of trade between East Africa and the subcontinent go back a long way and, as I’ve noted before, whether via the ocean or the mediating connection of the Arab world there are many similarities between Somali cuisine and North Indian cuisines in particular, both in terms of flavour and form. The sambusa/samosa—which radiated east and west from the Middle East—is the most obvious connection; the jabati/chapati and the mulawah—like a sweet rumali roti—are others. But, as I’ve also noted before, the chicken and beef suqar served at Somali restaurants in the Twin Cities are very similar to mild North Indian meat curries; and the seasoned long-grained rice served with many dishes is very close to yakhni pulaos.
Other things, of course, are very different—the spaghetti and the bananas. If you don’t know why these feature in Somali cuisine take a look at my last review. Here now is what we got at this meal (we we were eating again with the friends we are podding with):
- Fried chicken and rice. Four perfectly fried drumsticks over a large bed of seasoned rice. We also got four extra drumsticks at $1.50 per.
- Spiced goat over rice. As always, a large portion of well-cooked goat—tender but with a nice chew—over rice. Great with the lethal green sauce, basbaas which is very like Indian green chutneys made with pureed green chillies and cilantro.
- Fried liver. We love their rendition of fried liver with onions and bell peppers. It is usually served with injera but they didn’t have any on this occasion and so we ate it with mulawah instead.
- Chicken suqar. Mild but richly flavoured, we got this served over a massive bed of spaghetti tossed in red sauce.
- Beef suqar. Like a nice mild curry with potatoes, we got this with jabati, a bread somewhere between rotis and naans.
- Sambusas. We didn’t eat these at lunch but at tea that evening and the next. Their sambusas are really excellent, even heated up later in a toaster oven. The ground beef is seasoned beautifully and cooked with hot peppers and onions and are just perfect with some of the lethal basbaas.
- Gyro plate. Lots of nicely seasoned and grilled gyro meat over more of that seasoned rice. Very tasty indeed, both with the rice and a couple of days later in an ersatz breakfast taco.
I should say, by the way, that the seasoned rice that is an option with almost every entree may almost be my favourite thing at Nawal. I would be happy eating it just by itself.
For a look at the restaurant and the food, launch the slideshow below. Scroll down to see how much it all cost and what’s coming next.
Oh yes, in addition to the bananas all the entrees also come with a can of soda. One member of our party was very excited to see a can of Faygo in there for reasons I will not disclose.
All of this with a big tip came to just under $120. With leftovers this was enough food for at least 8 adults. So between $12-15/head. Which is an incredible deal for what it is. If you’re within driving range I’d highly recommend you pick up some food from them as well.
Okay, up next: probably more Indian food.
When you venture further north, you might enjoy Dilla on the West Bank of the U or Fasika on Snelling just north of University in St. Paul.
We’ve eaten at Fasika a few times and I’ve reviewed them. Both it and Dilla are Ethiopian restaurants though. I have been jonesing for Ethiopian for a while—our first stop might actually be at Demera.