Exploring unfamiliar territory can be an intimidating feat. Throw new foods into the mix, and many of us will roll into protective balls like human-sized pill bugs. The standard approach to international markets is to stick to familiar items -- produce, rice, noodles -- while glancing at, but not daring to take home, the rest.
Well, Hot Dish readers, we're not into that approach. Because we're always on the lookout for new and exciting flavors, we decided to taste test as many foods from the Karmel Square Somali Mall as possible on a $30 budget.
See also: Minnesota's camel milk black market
The Somali Mall comprises two main buildings enclosing a square parking lot near the intersection of Lake Street and Pillsbury Avenue. Beyond the heavy traffic and noticeably large Somali population near the front entrance, there are few distinguishing exterior factors.
The mall is almost always bustling, which made our recent venture rather confusing. Upon our 1:45 p.m. arrival, hardly anyone was outside, save for a few men playing cards beneath an awning. We entered the building farthest from Lake Street, only to find that every shop in the mall was closed. Where was everyone?
A voice boomed from speakers in and around the mall. We had arrived at prayer time. A man near the entrance informed us that shops would reopen within 20 minutes after prayer ended. We sat in the Walgreens parking lot and waited, admiring the murals painted on the side of the building.
Sure enough, within the half hour the mall was once again bursting with activity, with folks lined up outside the many cafes awaiting their post-prayer snacks. We walked up and down the main hall of the second building, bewildered at all of our options, before wandering back to the first building to order lunch at what seemed to be the only restaurant in the part of the mall closest to Lake Street. The rest of the building is populated with clothing stores, tailors, shoe shiners, and cell phone shops.
The restaurant is on the side of the building facing the enclosed parking lot. We didn't see a name on the overhanging sign, just a number of meat-centric breakfast and lunch options.
For lunch, diners can choose from goat, beef, or chicken. We ordered the beef meal for around $9 and were seated in a sectioned off room with lime green walls and a flat screen TV projecting CNN. If you enjoy eating with your hands as much as we do, you'll be in good company. By the end of our fellow diners' meals, rice and bits of meat were strewn across the table. We were in paradise.
Our meal came with a large plate of cardamon-raisin rice, long strips of thinly cut seasoned beef, a small salad, two bananas, and a soft drink. It was more than enough for two to share. We also ordered an espresso, which actually fell somewhere between a macchiato and cappuccino.
After lunch, we walked back across the parking lot to the second building, where most of the lines had since died down. Many of the coffee shop/cafes in the building serve the same standard fare, like doughnuts, smoothies, and sambusa, but they generally have one or two of their own specialties.
We stopped at Qoraxlow Restaurant, where we had first discovered halwa -- a gelatinous mix of sugar, cornstarch, oil, and spices -- on a past visit. It was too sweet to eat in large quantities, but folks were lined up out the door to get their hands on it. On this particular day, we opted instead for a bag of cookies, a spicy kebab, and two falafel balls, which were much denser than expected. Items from all of the shops can be heated upon request.
We crossed the hall to admire the smoothie menu at another coffee shop, trying to exercise some semblance of self-control to save room for the pastry feast we were about to consume. If you're in the mood for a smoothie, though, the Somali Mall has all of your flavor bases covered and most are far cheaper than average smoothie joint versions.
The mall also has a number of convenience stores that offer a variety of dried goods, halal meats (including camel), and produce. Alas, you will not find camel milk at any of the shops in the Somali Mall, as we discovered earlier this year.
We stopped at the cafe boasting the most impressive array of fried food options, in addition to a very helpful overhanging menu with photos and names of the items. We ordered one of everything in the display case, in addition to ambulo sareen (azuki beans and white corn), which was hiding in a casserole tray near the back. The front-end worker asked if we wanted it served with oil and sugar. Intrigued, we said yes.
Our last stop, Juba Coffee & Ice Cream, primarily focuses on dessert. Two homemade cakes in the display case -- pineapple upside down cake and strawberry cake -- caught our attention immediately. We ordered a slice of strawberry cake, in addition to a malawah (a sweet pancake), and nafaqo (egg-stuffed potato). [page] We headed home and laid our bounty on the table. For $30, we'd split a filling meal between two people and had enough sweets and meat-filled fried delicacies to last for days. We took a second to let our full stomachs settle and began the final taste test.
We started with the sambusa, a fried triangle stuffed with meat and veggies, similar to Indian samosas. Most shops sell them for around $1.50 apiece. It doesn't matter where you buy them. They're always delicious.
Next up, the malawah, a $1 Somali pancake that has more in common with the crepe than fluffy buttermilk rounds. They'd be perfect with jam, peanut butter, Nutella, and even savory fillings, but can also be enjoyed on their own.
Qoraxlow bakery's "swirl" cookies cost $3 per bag. They were like cinnamon sugar cookies, but crunchier than anticipated and hard to put down.
The kebab had a spicy kick at the end of each bite. Two kebabs could make for a full meal when served with rice or veggies.
Many Somali desserts are gelatinous in nature. Mashmash -- made of flour, water, sugar, and a hell of a lot of oil -- was no exception. It's a sweet, oily pancake, and though quite tasty, it's just oily enough that you might have trouble finishing it on your own.
Nafaqo, or "nutrition," is served for breakfast or as a snack. It's essentially a ball of mashed potatoes stuffed with a hard-boiled egg, then rolled in breadcrumbs and brightly-colored spices and fried. It's as sinfully delicious as it sounds.
Hot Dish readers, there's no need to be afraid of going out on a culinary limb. How else will you find those hidden gems?
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