We still have four months to go in 2004, but I am going to go on record right now and say that Mandeeq Restaurant is and will be my best find of the year. The Twin Cities obviously have a large and growing Somali and east African population. For a few years I have talked with other foodie friends and wondered if there are some hidden gems out there waiting to be found. My first experience with Somali food a couple years ago was such a big swing and a miss that I had pretty much written off Somali food; now I realize that is like going to Applebee's and then writing off all American food.
So when my adventurous-eating uncle was visiting me a couple weeks ago and I gave him eight options of places to eat lunch, he did not think about it for a split second in picking Somali. He wanted to try something he had never had. The two disclaimers I gave were that I did not have a specific place in mind, and my one experience with Somali food was a bad one. No worries, he said, let's go to where you think we might find it.
We drove down East Lake Street and passed at least three Somali restaurant /cafes before parking near Mercado Central. After sharing a tamale (just in case), we started our journey. The first place, right across from Mercado Central was totally empty. The next place we walked in and stood around for several minutes and nobody came out to help us. The stale cigarette smoke and the relatively empty room did not help the cause. Onward...
We went another block (12th Ave. and East Lake St.) and noticed a place we did not even see on our drive. We slowly opened the door, and saw a packed room and smelled delicious food. This was it. We went in and found a booth. We were the only non-Somalis and it was the only open table in the restaurant at 2:00 p.m. on a Friday. About a third of the customers were dressed in beautiful traditional Somali outfits. A very friendly waiter came over welcomed us, and asked us what we wanted to eat (there were no menus). We told him to bring us something good.
He started us out with a pitcher of mango juice (everybody in the room was drinking mango or grapefruit juice from pitchers). He also brought a bowl of soup with vegetables and pieces of goat meat. The broth was delicious. Shortly after, he brought three platters to the table. The first was a goat stew with chunks of goat meat (there was a choice of beef, lamb, chicken, goat, and maybe 1-2 other things). The second platter was rice with stewed vegetables seasoned with cardammon, cinammon, and other spices. The third plate was a simple salad. The rice dish and the goat were both very tasty.
The waiter came back midway through our meal to ask how everything was. We told him how much we liked it. I noticed some other stew with greens that a lot of people were eating, and I asked him what it was. Before I could stop him, he ran off and was back in a minute with a small bowl of a spinach stew for me to taste. Overall cardammon and cinnamon seemed to be the predominant flavorings in most of the dishes.
The grand total cost for this feast....$8. I am not sure what it would normally cost, but there was no menu and no prices so this was the price he picked -- so 6 cups of mango juice, rice with stewed veggies, goat stew, a big salad, and a bowl of spinach stew all for $8 -- oh I forgot to mention there were also 2 bananas that came with the dishes.
A few things you should know about this place:
1. There were no women in the restaurant. We asked our waiter and he said they sat in a special room in the back. Do I approve of this? Definitely not. However, I did not feel it was my place to make a statement about their cultural norms.
2. You do not use utensils. And it is not like Ethiopian food where you use injera bread to pick up your food. You are digging in with your whole hand and you are going to get messy. Needless to say there was a constant line for the men's room as people washed their hands on arrival and departure.
3. It is also attached to a Somali grocery and pool hall.
4. You need to feel comfortable with a place where not all of your questions about what you are eating will be answered because of a little bit of a language barrier.
If you are willing to live with those shortcomings, you will be treated to a truly unique and very good dining and cultural experience.