By G.A. Benton For The Columbus Dispatch
Thursday July 23, 2020
A plate filled with crepes, chichen suqqar, veggie mix, potato sauce, plantains, kud dud and red sauce at Afra Grill. [Rob Hardin/Alive]
In my experience, people who immigrate to this country often exhibit a deep faith in the lofty ideals on which America was founded.
This explains the striking decorations inside Afra Grill, a modern, highly accommodating and pristinely sparkling Northland-area restaurant that Abcos Ahmed, an emigre from Somalia, opened in June.
Rocking a tagline of “African inspired, American made,” Afra Grill — a fast-casual business with a drive-through window and amiable counter service — has premiered in one of the more attention-grabbing new restaurant settings I have seen this year.
The establishment’s interior features a stark yellow-and-black color scheme and seating at faux-marble tables, padded booths and banquettes. Most notably, though, Afra Grill’s walls are emblazoned with prominent reproductions of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution of the United States; inspirational quotes from civil-rights activists and founding fathers; plus shoutouts to free speech, feminism and the “American dream.”
Though I assume it would taste amazing, you can’t eat freedom. Fortunately, Afra Grill’s food — mostly hefty, economical and customizable bowls that offer a dynamic range of textures, flavors and healthful ingredients — is reason enough to visit this appealing place.
Somali-centric restaurants are hardly new to Columbus — boasting more than 40,000 residents, the local Somali community is the second-largest in America. But if you are new to Somali food, the well-prepared and accessible dishes from Afra Grill are a great introduction to an easy-to-love cuisine that shares characteristics with Indian, Ethiopian and Mediterranean fare.
If a flaky, skillfully fried pastry pocket filled with seasoned ground beef, diced onions and peppers sounds good — and I guarantee it is — the samosa-like Sambuus is a killer deal ($1.99). Tack on a chai-like Afra Ice Tea ($2.50) that is milky, clove-scented and not too sweet, and you have a fantastic snack or appetizer.
Ordering an entree starts with choosing a bowl base, such as Somali rice (good basmati), alluringly spicy jollof rice (a west African favorite), healthful and hearty brown rice or soothing mulawah — substantial yet supple, semi-sweet, brown-spotted crepes.
Main ingredients, which are primarily stew-style meats, set the bowl’s price. Like every bowl option here, these are all quite good, and include: Chicken Suqaar ($10.99) — spicy, similar to chicken curry; Chicken Afra ($10.99) — herb-flecked, slightly minty cubes; Habo Steak ($11.99) — delicious, mostly tender pieces of beef brightened by clove and cardamom notes; Roasted Goat ($12.99) — unctuous, tender and great-tasting but fraught with bones; and Veggie Delight ($8.99) —a zesty, vinegar-spiked medley of greens, okra, green beans, cauliflower, carrots and more.
Jollof rice, beef, beans, potato sauce and Kachumbari, plantains, corn and green sauce at Afra Grill [Rod Hardin/Alive]
Garnishes run hot and cold and bring a lot to the party. The best hot add-on is Suugo, which resembles a mashed-potato curry. The veggie mix (a smaller portion of “veggie delight”) is a close second, and I would rate the OK sweet baked beans in a distant third place.
I liked the raw bite of the Kachumbari (think pico de gallo), but my favorite cold garnishes brought appreciated sweet accents to the bowls’ zippy profiles. These include glazed mature plantains, sweetened vermicelli (adriyad) and sauteed onions and peppers with raisins (kud kud).
Finishing touches come from DIY sauces such as a spicy but versatile red condiment that tastes like it is based on tomato paste. The fiery and garlicky green sauce is recommended only for thrill-seekers like me.
In the end, Afra Grill’s food is so gratifying that self-designing a filling and flavorful bowl is basically foolproof. Even if the restaurant gets some requested add-ons wrong — this happened to me — you still are likely to wind up with a meal whose diversely bold and comforting, sweet and spicy, aromatic and earthy components fit together like a completed jigsaw puzzle of a radiant melting pot.