Dining in Phoenix sometimes feels like going toe-to-toe with Torquemada during the Spanish Inquisition, or at least Monty Python in that skit where they declare, "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!" Except here, they let you choose your method of torture. Breakfast at a pretentious resort eatery? Lunch at a bloated corporate chain? Or maybe din-din at the atavistic beef emporium behind door number three?
A glutton for punishment I am not, which is why, for the most part, this column's allegiance remains with two specific categories of grub shack: the first made up of independent, non-ethnic eateries, and the second comprising all ethnic bistros of every possible nationality and stripe.
Sadly, my finds amidst the indie-non-ethnics generally leave me, even in the best cases, racked with ennui. How many times can a man nosh fried calamari, bruschetta, and -- horror of horrors -- the dreaded "flourless chocolate cake"? The lack of imagination in that well-coiffed realm is taste-bud-numbing. Nothing is extremely bad, but neither is anything ever terribly exciting.
When it comes to ethnic Phoenix, that world of immigrant cuisines that includes everything from 16th Street mariscos joints to Bulgarian eateries on the west side, this is where life turns interesting for a food writer. In this category is where you'll come across the oddest creations: omelets floating in yogurt, fried pineapple rings, barbecued tripe. So when I was tipped off to a new Somali restaurant called Juba, on east McDowell Road and 51st Street, I danced down there quicker than Wacko Jacko moonwalked away from the Santa Barbara County courthouse.
Juba is brought to us by three Somali expats: Bashier Elmi, Abdulahi Hussein, and Mohamed Ali, who looks more like actor Tim Curry with a tan than the former heavyweight champ. I promised Ali no boxing jokes as long as I want to keep eating at this barely 3-week-old jewel of Phoenix's ever-expanding Somali community. And believe me, after trying Somali cuisine for the first time ever at Juba, eating there is all I can think about.
Though Somalia lies next door to Ethiopia, its food is distinct. Somalis do have a form of spongy enjera, that bread Ethiopians use both as utensil and accompaniment to their stews. But the Somali version is mostly eaten for breakfast alongside liver and onions. It's less spongy, more like a pancake, and a bit more appetizing.
Somalis do have scrumptious meat and chicken dishes, however, often served with basmati rice that has been flavored with cardamom and cinnamon, called bariis. I swear, there may be nothing more delectable than that rice. And the meals served with it are equally gustable. Sukhaar is a traditional dish of tender beef chunks sautéed with bits of scallion, bell peppers, and tomatoes. Hillib is goat meat, second only to camel flesh in the Somali culinary canon according to the folks at Juba. But as camel steak is difficult to acquire locally, hillib is the meat of choice for Somalis in the PHX.
Goats are lean, muscular critters, and the flesh is not as soft as beef. But the folks at Juba know how to cook it so you won't loose an incisor while gnawing chunks of it. It's chewier than beef, but not as gamy as lamb. If you eat the goat for lunch at Juba (lunch being the main Somali meal of the day), the meat comes off the bone fairly easily. I still prefer lamb, but Juba's hillib comes close to winning over my taste buds, or, ahem, getting my goat.
The Capricorn-craven out there need not fear; you can also get bariis with a side of chicken chopped up into little bits and sautéed with tomatoes, or with thin strips of beef steak, seasoned and fried. The chicken item earns my highest award -- a dish licked clean! I'm also quite taken with Somali samosas, spelled "sanbusa" on the menu. The triangle treats I've eaten at Juba are far tastier than their culinary grandpappies from the Indian subcontinent. The crust is slightly sweet, and the ground-beef interior is spicy, a gustatory roller coaster that I recommend riding over and over.
From the late 19th century well into the 20th, Italy maintained a colony in southern Somalia, and Somali cuisine retains elements of the Italian influence. For instance, you can get your sukhaar or hillib with spaghetti, macaroni, or lasagna. That is to say, you should be able to, once Juba has all the kinks worked out of its menu. After all, they are a new enterprise, so the only pasta I've been able to try has been the spaghetti tossed in a light marinara, served as a side to the meat, or vice versa. Juba's spaghetti is simple and satisfying, and the menu's descriptions of the macaroni and lasagna dishes are intriguing, the macaroni especially, with "tomato sauce and cream." Can't wait to have that with a spot of goat.
Being a Southerner by birth, I thought I'd sampled the best sweet tea on the planet, but Juba taught me one better. Their iced tea boasts star anise, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, and mint, as well as sugar -- overall, like a mint julep with no bourbon. Thank you, sir, may I have another?
I should mention that a large part of the menu is made up of Middle Eastern fare: kebabs, baba ghanouj, and so forth. All of it above average. The owners explained to me that, as they cater mostly to Somalis, they wanted to expand their patrons' options. The Somali food remains more exotic and enticing, though.
Juba's insides have been gutted and redone by its trio of owners to a pleasant color scheme of taupe, brown and gray. I especially like the Moorish arches of one dining room, and its beaded curtain, which allows me to fantasize about being an international fat man of mystery. All I need is a white suit and a fez!
Servers wear dress shirts with the Juba logo, the name taken from one of Somalia's two great rivers. The owners are pleasant gents, with ready smiles and excellent English. And the strip mall in which Juba is located is smack-dab in the heart of Phoenix's Somali community, many of whom have fled the troubles in their homeland for a new start here in America. Considering the Somali café and cafeteria in the same complex, perhaps we should dub the block "Little Mogadishu," or "Little Somalia." With places like Juba around, is it any wonder that a jaded foodie such as I finds contentment therein?
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Phoenix dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.