Spontaneity in meals is a rare occurrence these days. We all have a list of what to eat next, from social media feeds, recommendations from a trusted guide, or whatever our meal prep kits have planned for the week.
Recently, after a parent’s two hour flight delay, spontaneity landed me at a Shell gas station in Irving, where given the many options for wasting two hours, the default was to look for places to eat.
The closest restaurant (other than a Whataburger) was a Somali restaurant. A quick review of Google reviews looked at it as a “hole in the wall”, with “nice owners” and a “simple menu.” It was just a quarter of a mile down the street in a little mall. I had never tried Somali food before so a feeling of pure curiosity was sparked.
The windows outside the restaurant are covered with large images of food. The left side of the door features the entrances while the right side has small bites. The pictures are colorful and awe-inspiring, but the dining room is anything but. The space is rather modest, with off-white walls, simple decorations, and a small, tight-fitting floor plan with tables in each corner. The “hole in the wall” observation is literal, although perhaps two holes are more appropriate: the top half of a door has been cut out where customers order and pay; then there is also a small window in the wall to pass food to customers.
A simple menu hangs on the wall and lists only 10 items. A small sign stuck to the wall advertises camel milk. Starters include a fish steak, whole fish, lamb, goat, beef suqaar, chicken suqaar and a quarter baked chicken thigh, served with your choice of rice or pasta and priced at $ 10 to $ 15. Sambusa, a fried savory pastry, is served with beef, vegetables or fish and costs between $ 1 and $ 1.50. A single paper menu brochure at the order table includes additional items like mandazi (fried donut), a popular morning item that sells out regularly.
‘Suqaar’ is a common Somali dish, a sauce made from meat and vegetables served over pasta, which originates from the Italian influence on Somali cuisine, rooted in the Italian colonization of Somalia in the late 1800s. until the 1900s.
While I waited for lunch, a constant stream of customers came and went. Many of them had called to place their orders, while two were dining at their own corner tables. A customer quietly finished his meal as I walked in and mentioned to the staff that this was their first visit among many. Another customer ordered his lunch in his native language, Somali. A postal worker down the street picked up his usual plate for lunch that day.
My meal was ready in about 15 minutes and was served in a heavy plastic foam box filled with noodles, meat and vegetables. The top layer was the beef suqaar, a freshly made combination of ground beef sautéed with onions, peppers and cilantro. Underneath the suqaar is a thin spaghetti mixed with a thick red sauce, with an additional sauce on the side.
At first it visually looked like an unlikely combination, almost like an Asian stir-fry over traditional Italian pasta. After taking a bite it all made sense and the dish is unique and amazing in itself. The suqaar was simple yet comforting, with a savory taste, a tender bite of beef and sautéed onions and peppers. The spaghetti, with perfect al dente pasta and fresh tomato sauce, was better than some of the local Italian dishes.
There was nothing left on my plate, delaying my planned lunch with my mom, much like the delayed flight that caused this whole experience. Perhaps this is a sign of dining with less planning and more spontaneity. Or maybe I should just plan my next trip to Irving and eat at Cafe Madina again.
Cafe Madina, 1820 Valley View Lane, Suite 130 (Irving). 972-871-7193. Monday to Saturday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., closed on Sunday