Friday, January 24, 2014
By Lily Weed
East African Restaurant is the quiet but self-assured new kid in Spenard. While its décor is dominated by remnants of the space’s previous German restaurant identity — walls coated in red and black striped wallpaper, an old piano, a stein for a tip jar, even the tables and chairs — the new tenant’s additions of a few potted plants and a small flat screen TV, as well as their rearrangement of tables, project a feeling of effortless transition. My dinner partner and I first visited shortly before 5 p.m. on a Thursday. A group of men occupied two of the tables but the place was otherwise empty.
After glancing around for restaurant staff and not finding any we seated ourselves at the table nearest to the counter. The tables were bare except for salt and pepper and flyers advertising samosas. We waited a few minutes before a man came in from outside and brought us a menu. While we were looking it over he reappeared with hot bowls of complementary soup: goat meat broth with carrot, peppers and onion. The soup was thin but the flavor was multidimensional. It entered your mouth mild and savory and left with a zing of lingering spice.
As we ate our soup a different man appeared from the back of the kitchen. He was friendly and spoke English confidently, telling us his name was Hassan and that his restaurant has been open since October. His main customers (and his cook) are Somali immigrants like himself, but he is starting to get a broader repeat customer base. He took our orders: Chicken shwarma on chapati ($8) and special katikati with chicken ($13). I tried to order samosas but Hassan shook his head and apologized, explaining that they did not have any prepared. He told us he plans to get a warmer so they can have them ready, but for now, if you want samosas, you need to order in advance.
The menu is 12 items spread across two pages offering beef, chicken, goat, kidney or liver (no vegetarian options advertised). Many of the items have choices. The shwarma, for example, comes with chicken or beef and either pita bread or chapati. For drinks they have water or a small selection of juices and sodas.
Our orders came quickly. Portions were large enough to feed two and everything was spicy. Hassan laughed when we asked about the spice. “It says spicy on the bottom of the menu!” If you don’t like spice, tell him to make it mild when you order.
Chapati is thinner than pita and has a texture similar to a lightly greasy tortilla. The shwarma came wrapped in tinfoil and cut in half on an ungarnished plate. Enclosed in the chapati was well trimmed chicken bits sautéed in onions, garlic, herbs and spices with shredded lettuce and a tiny bit of ranch dressing. I ate half and delivered the other to my brother. He called the next day to say he had just eaten it for lunch, cold, and found it “delicious.”
We weren’t sure what to expect with the special katikati. It came heaping on a large round plate. The chicken was similar to what was inside the shwarma and not unlike fajitas: small spiced chicken pieces sautéed with onions and peppers. On the side was a slice of lime, a shredded lettuce salad, and what seemed to be chopped chapati soaked in broth.
We returned on the following Tuesday just after 5 p.m. Having enjoyed my leftovers, my brother decided to join us. He opted for a beef shwarma ($8). It was the same as my chicken shwarma (from the previous visit) except filled with small pieces of free-of-fat beef. We also ordered the rice and goat meat ($13) and chapati and beef sukhar ($12.99). The goat meat was lean and not spicy and came with a mound of lightly flavored curry rice and a mass of sautéed vegetables. The beef sukhar had one plate for chapati and another with the same chopped beef, onion, and pepper mix found in my brother’s shwarma. By the time we finished eating the place was filled with customers. The TV played local news and some children loudly told their parents about their school day. Hassan moved from table to table, taking orders and making recommendations.
While many of the dishes at East African Restaurant proved similar, the food didn’t seem repetitive. It was carefully prepared and casually presented. Everything we ordered had an unprocessed, straightforward, clean, home-style taste, free from excess ingredients, a quality that mirrors the atmosphere of the restaurant. It is the sort of food you could eat every week and never grow tired of.
East African Restaurant
2602 Spenard Road
Open every day 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Delivery available, call for price