4348 54th Street, City Heights
“Camel meat,” sighs Mukhtar. “That’s what I miss most. It’s the meat treat in Somalia. Here, I think it’s not even legal.”
He grabs a piece of banana. Of course, if there’s one thing apart from camel meat that says “Somalia,” it’s banana. It goes with everything. “That’s because we have a sweet tooth,” Mukhtar says.
Down the hall, the faithful are gathering for one of the day’s five prayers. I feel a little guilty. Here I am at their restaurant, feeding my face.
This is at the Safari Market, maybe 35 stalls, little shops in an ex-supermarket. It’s an East African bazaar loaded with Somali and other African clothing stores, barber and beauty shops, music stores pumping with African music, stores that sell perfumed oils and, hey, best of all, food.
I’d spotted the Safari Market on my way to the County Health and Human Services offices, almost next door. Had a cuppa Somali tea there once. Hmm...time for a Somali snack? Bet they have goat. I head in, surrounded by Somalis heading to the mosque end of the place.
“Any goat left today?” I ask the cheery guy behind the counter, Ahmed. You get lunch for $7, which covers everything. Rice, spaghetti, goat meat, beef, fried chicken, roast chicken, salad — as much as they can fit into your polystyrene box.
“Just enough goat left,” says Ahmed. He starts shoveling out the last remaining ribs and bits of leg bone, with dark roasted meat on them, from a chafing dish. He adds a big deep-fried chicken drumstick. Then slabs of roasted chicken. Then — heavens — beef, rice, spaghetti, salad, a quartered lime, and some green hot sauce, and on top of everything, a banana. That’s the Somali way.
“Something to drink?” he asks.
“Is that included?”
“Of course. Everything is included in the toddoba dollars.”
That’s “seven” in Somali.
I almost ask for the tea I had last time. It was delicious, creamy and sweet, with cardamom, ginger, and cinnamon. Cost $1. But today I go for a large cup of mango juice and head off toward the television at the end of African Spice’s row of Formica-topped tables. It’s showing news — Al Jazeera — right now. Some kids follow me. Ismail, who’s nine, tries to teach me how to say “tea” — ami shah — and “What is your name?” Mugya al? I think that is.
That’s when Mukhtar turns up and plunks his box of lunch on the table. He looks about 25. We both start in. Me, to the goat. First taste makes me think of venison crossed with lamb. I mix it up a bit with the beef and the chicken. Then I twist some of the fine spaghetti onto my fork. Ahmed’s red-speckled green hot sauce perks up the baasto, as Somalis call spaghetti.
“That’s an urban thing, in Somalia, hot sauce,” Mukhtar says. “Country people have never known it.”
Mukhtar, turns out, is a rising star in the community, a student at SDSU. “I’ve never had a chance like this before,” he says. “Three years ago, I was just surviving in Kenya. It was full of bandits over there. The police were corrupt. They targeted Somalis. It was the worst place I’ve ever been. Now, here I am. You don’t know how good it feels.”
We’re sitting at the first table in African Spice’s row. One or two elderly men in robes sit in the green-and-maroon couches, watching, sipping chai.
I ask Mukhtar what he misses about home.
“First, my wife and two kids. They are in Somalia, waiting for me to succeed.”
The second thing is camel meat. The attraction is as much about texture as flavor. “Good camel meat is so tender,” Mukhtar says dreamily. They say it tastes like lamb, only stronger. Or even horse meat. And meat from the hump of a young camel is the bomb.
“Somali food is all about meat,” Mukhtar says. “We often have liver for breakfast, meat for lunch, though maybe only beans in the evening.”
Meanwhile, my goat is just fine. They say it’s all in the aging. But I don’t taste any gaminess. It’s like…buffalo? Sounds crazy, but it tastes nuttier than, say, beef. Whatever, I can’t eat any more. With the rice, spaghetti, the other meats, and the salad, I’m beat before I get halfway. This baby is two meals.
I close the box and head back out to mainstream America, though not before buying a few of the triangular chicken-stuffed sambusas (75 cents each) for Carla and a square of xalwo, the delicious red, cinnamonish Somali jelly dessert ($1).
Note to self: Call USDA. Tell them to legalize camel.
The Place: African Spice restaurant, in the Safari Market, 4348 54th Street (at El Cajon Boulevard), 619-342-5945
Type of Food: Somali
Prices: Breakfast anjera (spongy fermented Somali bread), $1; lunch/dinner plates, all $7, includes choice of (or combo of) roasted goat, deep-fried chicken, roasted chicken, beef, rice, spaghetti, salad, bananas, and drink; also available (depending on supply), lamb, tilapia ($7); sambusa (deep-fried spring-roll-type triangular pastry pockets with spices, vegetables, beef, or chicken), 75 cents each; Somali cardamom and cinnamon-flavored ginger tea, $1
Hours: 8:00 a.m.–8:30 p.m., seven days
Buses: 1, 1A, 15, 955
Nearest Bus Stop: El Cajon Boulevard and 54th Street