"Somali? Is that like—uh, what is that like?"
My friend's words somersaulted through my head as I surveyed the menu at Faridas East Africa Cuisine on a recent Sunday night. Slightly abashed, I'd patched together a threadbare reply to his question—something involving curry and sambusas. Glimpsing the menu while one of Farida's kids offered his recommendations, I imagined a more suitable response to my friend's question.
While San Diego streets are practically lined with pho shops and taco joints, the city's few Somali restaurants have yet to cross over into the mainstream. This perplexes me, mainly because San Diego harbors a large population of Somali refugees—"the nation's second largest" according to a recent Voice of San Diego story. And yet, the public mindset toward Somali fare seems to shift between no opinion at all or—like my friend—total confusion.
Located in the southeastern San Diego neighborhood of Ridgeview-Webster (1754 Euclid Ave.), Faridas East Africa Cuisine is a family-run, self-labeled "bistro" that relies on the grit of its matriarch—a pint-sized woman whom I watched leave the eatery in a flurry of floor-sweeping fabrics. Her tall and lanky sons tower over her, helming the counter and carrying out the food on plastic trays.
Unlike the new flock of fashionable San Diego restaurants flaunting Anthropologie-esque interiors, Faridas does not promise much eye candy. Mustardy walls overcompensate for the colorless tile floors; potted plants add slips of green to the large and decoratively barren space. When it comes to restaurants, though, aesthetic splendors don't hold my attention for very long. Good food is good food, after all, and no quantity of Mason-jar chandeliers will change what that means to me.
On a recent weekend night, Faridas offered an escape from the balmy, end-of-summer heat. I scored a table near a whirring ceiling fan, cooling down with a glass of mango tea, which was eye-bulgingly sweet but refreshing nonetheless.
Somalia's history of colonization by the French, British and Italians has undoubtedly influenced its cuisine. At Faridas, pasta and rice dishes share the menu with steaks, cream-sauce chicken and sandwiches served on chubby French rolls. Greek salad and fries also make an appearance, along with sambusas and a Somali sweet bread called bur.
I settled on the special: a cumin-seasoned chicken stew served with cardamom rice and vegetables. Better known as maraq, the Somali dish is a basic daily stew. Spoon the steaming mixture over the rice, which is lovely—the grains are fluffy and soft, but not at all mushy.
Though light and zesty, the grilled-chicken salad is rather unimpressive, but it does complement the hot maraq. Look for a squeeze bottle of basbaas cagaar on your table, a pale green sauce that will enliven the heap of sautéed veggies by adding a swift and much-needed kick of heat.
At Faridas, quite a few menu items can be bought with just a buck. This includes a cup of spiced Somali tea, a perfect stand-in for dessert. Fragrant with cloves, cardamom and cinnamon, it's reminiscent of Indian chai. Leaving the restaurant, I realized the extent of Somali cuisine's global influences. Far-reaching flavors, yes, but at the price of colonization.
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