Somalia, perched on the edge of the Horn of Africa, has absorbed many of the trade and historical currents that have flowed through it–foods and spices from India and farther east, Islam from Arabia, colonizers from Italy during the last century. Samosa House, a storefront Somali restaurant that replaced the Ethiopian Red Sea on Washtenaw in Ypsilanti, reflects those culinary influences: its halal menu includes a variation on Middle Eastern falafel, South Asian samosas and curried stews, and even Italian-inspired pasta dishes. Having no prior experience with Somali food, I can’t attest to the authenticity of the restaurant’s offerings, but I can enthusiastically endorse the deliciousness of many of Samosa House’s offerings–especially its namesake fried turnovers.
Those samosas will drive my return to Samosa House again and again. Each of the four fillings–vegetable, beef, chicken, and lamb–is uniquely flavored. The vegetable samosa is laced with coconut and scented with sweet spices; the meat versions, also well spiced, highlight the savory quality of their prime components. On my initial visits a samosa order comprised a single huge pastry, but on my last I received two smaller ones. I prefer the crust/filling ratio of the larger version, so I hope the change isn’t permanent; but large or small, those casings were thin, light, and crispy. Accompanying tamarind and green-chile chutneys reiterate the Indian influence and provide a nice complement.
Even before we tasted the crispy samosas, we knew that the food at this family-owned restaurant was thoughtfully and carefully prepared: Amina Hassan, who owns Samosa House with her sister Hawa, always disappeared into the kitchen after taking our order and returned to the dining room bearing each dish, hot and fragrant, when it was finished. (Members of large parties shouldn’t necessarily expect to eat quickly or even simultaneously. A better idea is to order with a sharing philosophy and divide the dishes as they come out.)
The rest of the family kept us company as we waited. Aweis, the family patriarch, showed us a photo of the Mogadishu soccer team he played on as a young man. Majeda, an eight-year-old niece, kept up a running patter that her older brother, Mohamed, mostly ignored. One late night, while winding down from a long day slinging pizzas, the owner of the adjacent Little Caesar’s franchise, clearly a regular, advised us of his favorites–samosas, lamb and goat stews, and the mango smoothie.
That mango smoothie is delicious and, if you can refrain from consuming it all while you wait, a good way of taming the heat of the spicy potato appetizer. Mashed potato croquettes blended with curry spices, then battered and fried, these oblong patties are addictive. Less so are the falafel–dense, heavy orbs made from a mixture of beans rather than ground chickpeas.
After that appetizer, it’s hard to imagine ordering a pasta dish. We did, though, learning, when we inquired about the origins of Somali-style spaghetti, of the half-century of Italian rule that began in the late nineteenth century. The colonists are gone now, but they left their traditions behind; the spaghetti, heavily cloaked with a slightly spicy tomato sauce, was tasty if not exceptional. We paired it with beef, which the sisters sliced thinly, pounded, dredged, and pan-fried–a crisp contrast to the soft noodles. We also ordered the creamy spinach pasta, a rich dish lightly scented with tart tamarind and curry spices, that we had topped with chicken. My brother particularly favored that chicken cutlet, dredged and pan-fried in plenty of butter until it was crispy but still moist inside–the best rendition of the ubiquitous chicken breast any of us had eaten in a long time. I’m not sure I would go out of my way to order either pasta again, but at $9.99 for a filling plate, both are great bargains.
The crispy beef and chicken also show up in even more admirably priced sandwiches ($4.99) that share space with cheese, lettuce, and tomatoes inside a round of wonderful house-made chapati bread. More interesting, though, is the minato, a family creation of sauteed spiced ground beef, vegetables, potatoes, cheese, and hard-boiled egg encased in a soft dough–almost the texture of a thin Chinese bun–and baked. I am not a fan of ground beef, but I loved this sandwich (and its $3.49 price).
We tried three of the sukhars, or curry stews–chicken, vegetable, and a tough lamb. Each came smothered in the same tart, piquant curry sauce, finished with a bit of milk. They were not the most interesting curries I’ve ever eaten, but they were tasty, and the three house-made breads accompanying them were intriguing. My absolute favorite was anjeero, the Somali equivalent of Ethiopian injera, a thin fermented flatbread, soft, stretchy, and slightly spongy, with a bit of sweetness. Muufo is a thick pancake, also sweetish, made from corn flour and wheat but tasting only of wheat, that’s dense and dry enough to act as an excellent sop for the stew. As with the sandwiches, the chapati was flaky and fresh.
Spiced rice, heavy with cardamom, is an option with the sukhars, and it’s delicious. We also tried mandazi, a sweet fried flatbread, puffed and flaky, that I could easily eat alone or with the spiced rice and a samosa or two.
For those of us who love well-seasoned food, Samosa House represents a real find–even a few surprises. At the first sip of his Somali coffee, my husband gasped and his eyes opened wide. Coffee loaded with ginger and whole spices jolted him awake with more than just caffeine, but he didn’t leave any in his cup.
1785 Washtenaw, Ypsilanti
Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
Appetizers and sides $.75-$4.49; salads and sandwiches $3.49-$6.99; entrees $9.49-$11.49.