Lot of bone, but a lot of meat, too
It’s the kids. They’re all over the table. And into the spaghetti and goat. All except Anas and Khalid. The two older boys are plowing into their own plate of chicken drumsticks.
Their dad has left them here to eat for a few minutes. He’s ordered the boys a feast: Goat, chicken, spaghetti, mango drinks.
Anas, Adnan, Khalid, Anwar attack their meal
Me, I found this place on my way up from Food 4 Less. “The East African Fusion Destination,” it says outside. I come in to this scene: Anas, Adnan, cousin Khalid, Anwar, and Mohammed the two-year-old are somehow making their food spread look like a feast for kings.
I head for the counter, start to ask Abdi the server guy for a Somali coffee, then can’t resist going for a sambusa. They’re $1.99. What’s to lose?
“Fish, vegetarian, chicken?” says Abdi.
“No beef, and we may be out of chicken. Fish is good, though.”
I end up ordering the vegetarian one, plus red sauce and green sauce. “Green’s hot,” says Abdi.
I settle in to wait for my order. Look around. Customers are a mix of Somalis and western guys. Lot of the western guys carry change-of-clothes bags. Fresh in from workouts, I’d say. Planet Fitness is just a few doors down.
One or two customers are dressed in white robes and skullcap, gear a Somali gent would wear back home in the Horn of Africa.
“Is that all you’re having, one sambusa?” says Anwar. He’s the seven-year-old brother. He’s leaning over the back of the kids’ booth. He starts flipping the pages of the menu. And it lands on the page of the “Goat Feast Royale.”
“That’s what we’ve got,” he says.
“Goat cubes mixed in and grilled with a blend of vegetables,” menu says. Aargh! I love goat. Usually tastes like buffalo, camel (which I once had further down University, at Coffee Time Daily), boar, venison. All a little gamey.
Veggie sambusa and sauces: the green’s the hot one
Abdi brings my veggie sambusa and coffee (medium, $1.49). The sambusa is pretty decent, especially with that green sauce heating up the crisp pastry. But, man, it’s the coffee. Sweet, seductive, swirling with wafts of cardamom, cinnamon...stuff dreams are made of.
But still the goat calls. Costs $10.99. Comes with basmati rice and a salad. I have to order it. Even though they have a ton of alternatives. And, looks like, mostly not Somali.
“This place is really trying to reach out,” says this guy behind me. Bile (Pronounced bee-lay. The name means “light from the moon,” he says. “Because his mom saw he was such a radiant baby, back there in Somalia,” says his friend Abdul.)
Bile and Abdul are two older gents who’ve come to talk politics over coffee. “These are hybrid foods here,” Bile says. “But then, Somalia is a mixture itself. Our spaghetti habit comes from the Italians when they colonized us. So the owners here are trying to make this a place for everybody, not just Somalis.”
So, sure, there are Somali essentials like the fuul plate (basically, stewed pinto beans and pita bread, $6.49) and chicken mushkaki (skewers of chicken kebab and rice, $10.99), but right beside them, a whole rack of American food. Like, a Philly cheese-steak sandwich that goes for $6.99 or $8.99 in combo with rice and salad, or Burger Royale (same prices). There’s even a chicken quesadilla for $7.99 ($9.99 for the combo).
The kids have just about demolished their three piles of food by the time my goat arrives. Man. Whopping. Piles of goat-on-the-bone with the rice and salad piled up against them. And the goat tastes bold, and hot with that green sauce. You need the basmati rice to calm things down.
So, now I’m talking to Bile and Abdul again. “Goat was fine, sambusa great, but you know what?” I say. “It’s this coffee that’s outstanding. What is it about it?”
“Ah. Qahwe,” says Bile. “A special kind of coffee. Nearer to tea, some say. They use the shell, the husk of the coffee bean, not the bean itself. Most coffee roasters throw away the shell, but it has the best flavors! The best vitamins. And plenty of caffeine.”
“At home, when we fast during Ramadan,” says Abdul, “we drink the coffee-shell drink because it quenches your thirst for much longer.”
Wow. This is the first time I’ve even heard of it. And, yes, the cardamom and cinnamon are part of it, but that coffee’s refreshing taste is the thing.
And when you think of it, it makes sense. With most fruit we eat the skin and outside flesh and throw away the seed. With coffee, they throw away the skin and outside flesh and only use the seed. Or do in most places. But not in coffee’s ancient birthplaces, like Yemen and Ethiopia and Somalia. Over there, the “coffee-tea” of the coffee-bean husk is a delicacy called qahwe, or quishr, or hashara.
All that untapped caffeine and sweetness! Some have even called qahwe Nature’s Red Bull.
I mean, this African secret has been out there for thousands of years? And I’m just hearing about it casually in a Somali restaurant tonight?
’Course, all this time I’m working away at my goat, cutting the meat from the bone and chowing into that deeply satisfying goat taste.
And, yeah, I’m thinking as I waddle back down University, totally goat-bloated: why’s goat so rare? There’s another dish that’s having a problem making it through the borders of our minds. I swear, places like Café Royale are gastro-embassies from the rest of the world we need.
I’d come back for the goat, but, if this dee-lish qahwe really is coffee-skin tea, I’ll be back just for the kick of discovering coffee’s Next Big Thing.
6511 University Avenue, San Diego
Hours: 11 a.m.–10 p.m. daily (till 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday)
Prices: Sambusas, $1.99 each; hummus and pita, $4.99; mashmash (fried Somali donut), $1; fuul plate, pita bread, $6.49; chicken mushkaki (skewers of chicken kebab, rice), $10.99; Philly cheese-steak sandwich, $6.99 ($8.99 combo with rice, salad); Burger Royale, $6.99/$8.99; chicken quesadilla, $7.99/$9.99; goat feast Royale, $10.99; lamb shanks Royale, $14.99; chicken leg Royale, $9.99; sweet chili deluxe fries (with chicken strips), $9.99; grilled chicken wrap, $4.99 ($6.99, combo)
Nearest bus stop: University Avenue at Bonillo Drive