First Look

A Spontaneous Somalian Lunch at Cafe Madina in Irving

Beef suqaar at Cafe Madina
Beef suqaar at Cafe Madina Felicia Lopez
Spontaneity in dining is a rare occurrence nowadays. We all have a list of what to eat next, sourced from social media feeds, recommendations from a trusted guide or whatever our meal prep kits have scheduled for the week.

Recently, after a relative’s two-hour flight delay, spontaneity landed me at a Shell gas station in Irving, where given the many options of how to waste two hours, the default was to look for places to eat.

The nearest restaurant (other than a Whataburger) was a Somalian restaurant. A quick skim through Google reviews vetted 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 at a small strip mall. I had never tried Somalian food before, so a feeling of pure curiosity was sparked.
click to enlarge Two holes in the wall, one for ordering the other for picking up food. - FELICIA LOPEZ
Two holes in the wall, one for ordering the other for picking up food.
Felicia Lopez
The windows outside the restaurant are covered in large pictures of food. The left side of the door features the entrées while the right side has small bites. The pictures are colorful and grand, but the dining room is anything but. The space is rather humble, with off-white walls, simple decorations and a small floor plan snugly fitting tables in each corner. The “hole in the wall” observation is literal, though perhaps two holes is more appropriate: the top half of a door has been cut out where customers order and pay; then there’s also a small window in the wall to pass food to customers.

A simple menu hangs high on the wall and lists only 10 items. A smaller sign taped to the wall advertises camel milk. Entrées include fish steak, whole fish, lamb, goat, beef suqaar, chicken suqaar and baked chicken leg quarter, served with your choice of rice or pasta and priced between $10 and $15. Sambusa, a fried savory pastry, is served with either beef, vegetable or fish and are priced between $1 to $1.50. A single paper menu pamphlet at the ordering table includes additional items like mandazi (fried doughnut), a popular item in the mornings that regularly sells out.

“Suqaar” is a common Somalian dish, which is a gravy made with meat and vegetables served over pasta, which comes from the Italian influence on Somalian cuisine, rooted in the Italian colonization of Somalia in the late 1800s to the 1900s.
click to enlarge Might want to check out the photos of the food outside Cafe Madina if it's your first trip. - FELICIA LOPEZ
Might want to check out the photos of the food outside Cafe Madina if it's your first trip.
Felicia Lopez
While I waited for lunch, a constant stream of customers came and went. Many of them had phoned in their order to pick up, while two dined at their own corner tables. One customer quietly finished his meal as I entered, and mentioned to the staff that this was his first visit of many. Another customer ordered his lunch in his native language of Somali. A postal worker from down the street came in to pick up their usual plate for lunch that day.

My meal was ready in about 15 minutes and was served in a plastic foam box, heavy and filled with noodles, meat and vegetables. The top layer was the beef suqaar, a freshly made combination of chopped beef sautéed with onions, bell peppers and cilantro. Below the suqaar is a thin spaghetti mixed with a chunky red sauce, with extra sauce on the side.

Initially, it visually looked like an unlikely combination, almost like an Asian stir-fry on top of a traditional Italian pasta. After I took one bite, it all made sense and the dish is unique and amazing in its own right. The suqaar was simple yet comforting, with a savory taste, tender bite of the beef and sautéed onions and bell peppers. The spaghetti, with a perfect al dente pasta and the 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 mother, much like the delayed flight that prompted this whole experience. Maybe it’s a sign to dine with less planning and more spontaneity. Or maybe I should just plan my next drive to Irving and eat at Cafe Madina again.

Cafe Madina, 1820 Valley View Lane, Suite 130, (Irving). 972-871-7193. Monday-Saturday 9 a.m. - 9 p.m., Closed Sundays
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Felicia Lopez is a contributing writer for the Observer, previously of Southern California and now eating her way through the greater Dallas area. She is a data nerd by trade and a dessert enthusiast at heart.