Exploring the Cafe Ways and Flavors in Tukwila's Somali Community

Even in the 21st century, there's no technological replacement for smoking and kibitzing.

On a Friday night, the mini-mall at Tukwila International Boulevard and South 150th Street reminds me of summers in small-town Indiana, back before cruising was outlawed and before DVDs and World of Warcraft were invented. If you were bored and underage, the only thing worth doing in Elkhart or Goshen or Middlebury was to head downtown and stand around, waving at everyone you knew who drove past. Given the fact that the scene in Tukwila's central Somali strip isn't fueled by secretive swigs of cheap vodka, it's less raucous, but it's very much a public commons: Cars and taxicabs fill every space in the vast parking lot. Women in ankle-length dresses and habit-length veils come and go from the Somali Grocery Store market, plastic bags and children in hand, and dozens of men cluster around the doorways of the cafes and restaurants, smoking and kibitzing in the warm evening. Inside Marwa Restaurant, the largest business on the lot, the tables are occupied by men sipping tea or tucking into a snack. The umber paint in the spare room is chipped at the corners, but the waiters keep the floors and tables dirt-free, and the picture on the plasma-screen TV, which most of the men in the room are facing, is crisp. There are sandwiches, roast meats, and pastas on Marwa's menu (all priced below $13), but it turns out to be more cafe than restaurant, if by "cafe" you mean a place that people go to for a cup of something hot and a long discussion, and by "restaurant" you mean a place that people go to just for the food. Like the rest of the customers, my friend Bob and I are drinking mango nectar and strawberry smoothies. Unlike most of them, we're also facing plates the size of manhole covers. Only an inch or so of the outer rim is visible; the rest of the plate is covered with meat, iceberg lettuce, rice pilaf or spaghetti with meat sauce, and Birds Eye–style carrots 'n' peas. Food is clearly not the main draw. I find myself staring across the table in entrée envy at Bob's beef suqaar while I gnaw on my jerkylike roast goat, washing down bites of a cuminy, dry rice pilaf with swigs of mango nectar. Occasionally, I pick up a wedge of a papery chapati to nab bits of beef from B's plate—the meat, coated in South Asian spices and fried with peas and caramelized onions, is delicious. I let Bob keep his spaghetti, the recipe for which came either from the Italians who colonized parts of Somalia for more than a half-century or, judging by the taste, my college cafeteria. Halfway through our meal, our waiter walks over to drop off two bananas, then wanders off. "Now I really think this is a meal my mom would make," Bob said. Luckily, I've already found better food just down the road. When scheduling restaurant reviews, I'm used to picking my companions based on their meat-eating habits, their passion for the restaurant's cuisine, or a complex algorithm that measures the anticipated quality of the restaurant I'm about to visit against the actual quality of the last restaurant I took my guests to. Gender has never factored in. Until this review. Marwa, like traditional Somali restaurants, has separate dining rooms, one for men and one for women and children. A couple of years ago, posters on the foodie discussion Web site Chowhound.com debated whether to patronize segregated-seating restaurants, an issue that has come up in Minneapolis and other cities with sizable Somali communities; on the board, a Somali woman wrote in to explain that the split seating is optional, designed to make the women feel more comfortable if they aren't dining with their husbands; a Somali man seconded her description. Still, I'm not married, and neither was my friend Ben when we drove to Salaama Restaurant. Since we didn't know if mixed parties were welcome, rather than offend anyone, we did something that made all the nerves on my scalp cramp: We told Ben's fiancée that we'd meet her for drinks afterward and headed out, stag. We shouldn't have worried. Located a mile north of Marwa, Salaama looks like a comfortably tatty roadside diner, with checkerboard linoleum, a refrigerator case for drinks, and world-map wallpaper (the political geography dates it to 1992). While the owner greeted us warmly and delivered our menus and plates, the two women who cook and serve when he's not there sat at the cash register all night, chatting. I returned for lunch a couple of weeks later and brought a co-worker; though she was the only woman in the room, no one seemed discomfited, including us. Salaama's menu mirrors Marwa's—simple meats and fish, pasta with Alfredo sauce, teriyaki chicken, plus suqaar for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—but its food is markedly tastier (entrée prices hover between $8 and $12). The spicing seems to blend South Asian and Arabic flavors with those of neighboring Ethiopia. But the Somali cooks keep the dishes simple: Some meat. A few sautéed zucchini, peppers, and carrots. A choice of rice pilaf, spaghetti with (a better) meat sauce, chapati (a soft wheat flatbread), or mufo (cornbread). All the food is halal, which means that the meat comes from animals slaughtered according to Islamic law—a quick slice of the knife, a blessing on the lips of the butcher, a merciful death. The beef suqaar and chicken suqaar were both rubbed thickly with spices, then rapidly browned in the pan so they came out tender. A similar spice rub coated the "king fish," or grilled salmon fillets. Cumin, coriander, and cardamom infused the rice pilaf, flecked with red-dyed grains of rice. The goat, which most captured my attention—the owner told me it's his top seller—was cooked long and slow, so I could pull the meat away from the bones with my fork. The mildly seasoned meat came with crimson-edged raw onions, a herbaceously hot green-chile sauce, and a stew of tomatoes, caramelized onions, and cilantro. When I took a torn piece of chapati, wrapped it around sauce-sprinkled meat and onions, and swabbed the bite through some of the vegetable stew, a dozen flavors flared and faded. It was cafe food—meant to feed a community, not field-tripping food geeks—and all the better for it. jkauffman@seattleweekly.com

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