Try African Flavors on the U street Corridor

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Observer Staff
Feb. 27, 2008

The U Street Corridor is well-known for its rich cultural history, entertainment hot spots and ethnic cuisine, so finding a worldly restaurant to go to for a night out on the town isn’t a difficult feat.

On Saturday night, a group of friends and I met at Café Nema, a small Somali restaurant tucked underneath Momo’s Sports Bar. It’s one of those places that if you weren’t looking for it, you might walk by it without a second glance. And that would be a sad mistake.

Observer photo by JODI WESTRICK
Ratatouille Pasta: $10.

We met around 8, and the restaurant, which is very small, wasn’t too crowded so we were seated pretty quickly. The staff was personable and seemed to know many of the people already eating, as well as those who came in after us. The walls were covered with traditional art and photos of the jazz musicians who often come to play in the restaurant.

For those unfamiliar with Somali cuisine, it’s somewhat similar to that of Middle Eastern countries, just with a few different combinations of spices and herbs. We decided to try a few of the appetizers to start off the meal. The plates were small, so I suggest you order a few if you have a larger group.

Observer photo by JODI WESTRICK
Falafel: $3.

We tried the babaganough ($4), which is eggplant, tahina and garlic mixed together, and all agreed it was probably the best dish of the bunch. Served with warm pita bread, the flavors literally explode in your mouth once you try it. The portion was larger than the other appetizers, and the staff was quick to bring us more pita. We also tried the restaurant’s falafel ($3) and kibeh ($4). The falafel wasn’t the best that we’ve had, but the kibeh was delicious and unique. Made up of ground beef, pine nuts, onions and burghul and shaped into a little cone, the kibeh had a unique flavor that I haven’t tasted before. Dip it in a little tahnini sauce and the results are delicious.

Though the menu isn’t very large, each of the entrees offered sounded amazing, which made it difficult to choose what to get. I settled on the kankal chicken ($11.50), which is cubed chicken breasts served with stewed tomatoes, red and green peppers, onions and spices. It also came with basmati rice, cooked spinach and a hot sauce made of blended peppers and garlic, so it’s not for the faint of heart. The meal was scrumptious and filling. Each bite was flavorful and the portions were generous.

My dinner mates ordered a variety of other dishes they claimed were just as good as the one I had. The chicken shawarma ($6), a sandwich made of chicken, vegetables and a tahini sauce rolled in a tortilla, offered a twist on a traditional meal. The ratatouille pasta ($10) was a large spaghetti dish with a sauce made up of the same stewed tomatoes, red and green peppers, onions and spices that were in my chicken kankal. The “meat and potatoes” guy in our group ordered the chicken kabobs ($11.50), which looked delicious and were probably a good choice for someone unfamiliar with ethnic cuisine.

Observer photo by JODI WESTRICK
Chicken Kalankal: $11.50.

Overall, we were impressed with Café Nema. The tiny setting made for a more intimate experience. The food was impressive, the staff was friendly and our meal came quickly. I recommend Café Nema for anyone looking for a little hole-in-the-wall type place with delectable food. The restaurant also offers a full bar as well as coffee and, according to our server, a “killer pound cake.”

Café Nema is located at 1334 U St., NW, and is a quick walk from the U Street/African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo Metro stop (green and yellow lines). It’s open Sunday-Thursday 11:30 a.m.-11:00 p.m. and Friday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 a.m.

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