Tawakal Halal Cafe is located on an East Boston corner in a burgundy building not much bigger than a garden shed. Inside is the homiest little space, painted ochre and festooned in festive tinsel garlands, the windows lined in bowls and baskets and other artworks. About half the room is taken up by the kitchen, walled off behind treescape murals; the back wall is a chalkboard filled with messages in different languages from customers and staff. One, top and center, is written in Hindi with an English translation overhead: “Very Good Food.” The restaurant smells like the best spices in the world commingling, with back notes of incense and something floral. From the kitchen come the sounds of conversation, laughter, and cooking. Each time there’s a sizzle, a fresh waft of spices fills the room. Is that your food being cooked? You hope so.
The little Somali restaurant just got a big break: It was among 50 nominees selected this month by Bon Appetit for the magazine’s annual “Hot 10” list of best new restaurants in the country. There are some questionable things about this year’s nominees — notably the inclusion of Carpenters Hall, an Austin restaurant in which editor-at-large Andrew Knowlton (who formerly led the Hot 10) is involved — but the local choices are unimpeachable. In addition to Tawakal, Bon Appetit mentioned DakZen, where Thai expats serve Somerville the khao soi it deserves, along with two spots in Providence: Syrian cafe Aleppo Sweets, where baklava is the specialty, and Big King, chef James Mark’s extra-special Japan-inspired nook. (None made the final list.)
Tawakal is run by Yahya Noor, 35, and a close constellation of relatives and friends — his mother, his sister, his brother-in-law. Noor’s family is originally from Somalia, where they lived in Barawa, along the southern coast. They left when he was a young boy, at the outbreak of the civil war, first relocating to a Kenyan refugee camp, then to Michigan and on to Massachusetts. They left for the reasons anyone leaves home in this way: “The No. 1 thing was our safety, and education was the second one,” he says. When he arrived here, he was nearly 16. He didn’t speak English, and he had never been to school. He graduated from East Boston High, then went to college at Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology. It is a narrative so common, so American, it barely needs spelling out. (It’s one you’re familiar with, for instance, if you’ve followed the career of Ilhan Omar, the Somali-American congresswoman from Minnesota.) And yet, in these times, it bears telling and retelling — to remind ourselves that, if there is such a thing as national exceptionalism, it exists only insofar as the nation has been a repository for and realization of every nation’s hopes and dreams. We are so much the sum of our parts that there are no parts, and the impulse to exclude is a rejection of what makes us worth a damn in the first place.
But we are talking about food. And we are talking about food.
Somali cuisine is stamped with the flavors of trade, immigration, and occupation: spices brought in by Indian merchants, dishes from the Arabic world, pasta that is a legacy of Italian colonialism. The result is fragrant, layered comfort — sambusas, samosa-like turnovers filled with ground beef; biryani with slow-cooked goat or falafel and hummus; spaghetti with meat sauce; chicken stew pooling over a base of coconut milk grits. Noor’s family was new to the restaurant business when they first opened Tawakal in Orient Heights. They shuttered that location in 2011, opening again in Jeffries Point last October.
Noor left Somalia when he was so young, he barely remembers it. But he knows what it tastes like. He grew up in a big family, with many generations living together and taking turns cooking for one another, using the ingredients his farmer grandparents grew. “Seeing food here, it was really a blessing,” he says of the United States. “We never had enough.” Even in the refugee camp, though, his parents always found a way to feed them, sneaking out to find jobs under the table.
Tawakal Halal Cafe serves the food the family has always cooked, down to the mango-based hot sauce they’ve been making for generations, which they now bottle and sell. “Soo Dhowow!” the label reads: “Welcome to our family!”
They can’t get the spices they use from Somalia, so they import them from Dubai, where the quality is better, fresher and more flavorful, Noor says. They make everything from scratch, starting with the shaah, the chai-like spiced tea integral to Somali culture.
Something tells me I will crave its milky sweetness, infused with cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves, all winter. Something tells me I will be back every chance I get for the Tawakal plate, strips of chapati cooked until soft in spiced tomato sauce with chickpeas and spinach, like a Somali version of chilaquiles. It is so good. It is what I want to eat, the kind of food that stays on my mind, whispering: “Aren’t you hungry right about now?”
The truth is, it is rare that I have felt this for “perfect” formal cuisine, dishes that have seen more attention from tweezers than my poor brows ever will, or the kind of participatory “experience” that makes you suspect you’re being punked even as you eat, say, foie gras s’mores suspended from a pine branch over smoldering house-made porcini “dirt” while a server dabs citronella behind your ears and whispers, “This course is called ‘Cabin 1986’ and it’s meant to evoke Chef’s formative summers at sleepaway camp.”
I have often felt this, however, for khao soi, for baklava, for hand-pulled noodles, long-simmered soups, spicy curries, roadside pies. I’ve been sorry to see the Aujourd’huis and Locke-Obers and L’Espaliers go out of business, but the restaurant closure that brought me the truest grief of late has been Seta’s Cafe, where chef-owner Seta Dakessian served fresh salads and soups, roast chicken with garlic sauce, Armenian-style grilled meats, and lavash made by her mother. It was soulful.
For some time, food critics failed to tell you the whole truth: that what we loved and what we spangled with stars were not always exactly the same thing. Editors divided the world into restaurant reviews and “cheap eats” write-ups, confusing cost with worth. In the process, mom-and-pops, immigrant-run shops, and small, shoestring operations were often sidelined, not given their full due.
We are now seeing a course correction. The 2019 Bon Appetit list carries forward the spirit of 2018’s, which made it nearly impossible to get a seat at the counter of Porter Square noodle shop Yume Ga Arukara. Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs and Best New Restaurants coverage evolved over the past years to include more women, more people of color, more cultures, more price points. Restaurants like Big King and Somerville’s tiny Peruvian Celeste now appear among James Beard award semifinalists, alongside high-end places like O Ya and Menton.
Our notions about what is award-worthy and deserving of attention are shifting. I’m glad to see it. It shines light on commendable places that previously might have gone unrecognized. It creates a different kind of excitement around the food scene in this country and in our own communities. And it means more chances to eat at restaurants like Tawakal Halal Cafe, truly special, very tiny, a place you would probably never find if you didn’t know to look for it.
389 Maverick St., East Boston, 617-418-5890
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.