To the untrained eye, Waamo and Al Aruba may seem like Ethiopian restaurants. Both offer Ethiopian cuisine's trademark flatbread and lots of stewed meats and vegetables, but these two eateries actually specialize in Somali cuisine, which differs from Ethiopian fare in a few subtle but key ways.
The two nations, Ethiopia and Somalia, despite being right next to each other, have quite a few differences that have an immense impact on their cuisines. For one, Somalia, unlike Ethiopia, is a Muslim majority country. As such, food preparations and some dishes are much different than in Ethiopia for the sake of keeping halal, the Islamic equivalent of kosher.
Additionally, Somalia borders the sea, while Ethiopia is landlocked, so that country's food is much more Mediterranean in nature. Influences from the Middle East and even Greece are more obvious in Somali food than in Ethiopian cuisine. Somalia also has a much longer history of European occupation, and as such, it's not particularly uncommon to see Somali dishes served with pasta or rice.
In any case, fans of Mediterranean and African flavors should give Somali food a try, and these two Central Phoenix restaurants make great places to start.
5050 East McDowell Road
Like so many Valley restaurants, Wammo is located in a strip mall with less-than-enticing signage. Inside, the walls are sparsely decorated; however, the staff is friendly and attentive, and raw, whole bananas (another mainstay of Somali dining) and a spicy dipping sauce are offered upon being seated.
The menu is fairly large and varied. You'll see a few obviously Mediterranean or Middle Eastern dishes including gyros, shawarma, falafel, and hummus, as well as a couple more Ethiopian options and Somali fare. Most of the latter category of entrees consists of stewed meat and/or vegetables with rice, greens, and Somali-style chapati, an unleavened flatbread native to South Asian countries like India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka that made its way into Somalian cuisine. There's also a pretty good smoothie and juice selection.
If you're a first-time diner, the stewed goat ribs, a staple of Somali and halal Ethiopian cooking, are a good place to begin. Wammo's goat has more fat and bone than diners may be accustomed to, but the meat also tasted was less gamey then we expected and pulled right off the bone. The stew was heavily spiced and offered deep flavor that can only be achieved through low, slow stewing, while rice was topped with raisins and bananas. The chapati was an excellent vehicle for both.
The decor is underwhelming, but the atmosphere is relaxed and the service accommodating. The price is manageable (a smoothie, stewed goat, rice, and chapati came to about $15), and most importantly, the food is great.
2935 East McDowell Road
Al Aruba is located in a tiny storefront in yet another strip mall with a barbed wire rooftop and minimal parking. A colorful sign out front advertises free delivery.
Inside, the walls are bare save for large prints of various sections of the menu. A few tables are clustered in front of the counter where diners order, which also has a menu on it. It makes ordering a little easier because the menu is huge. However, during our visit the kitchen had run out of several dishes, which we took as an opportunity to get an array of whatever was left.
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Due to the nature of the order, it's a little difficult to point to a single standout menu item. That being said, the "$15 worth of whatever is in the kitchen" didn't disappoint. The order got us a heaping plate of stewed goat and veggies, rice, greens, and a banana.
The goat was more tender and gamier than the goat at Waamo, though we actually preferred the gamier flavor. There were quite a few bones, tendons, and cartilaginous bits, but the meat came apart easily. Stewed cauliflower, carrots, and zucchini were flavorful and moist, the greens were fresh, and rice and grilled onions made nice accompaniments. The restaurant also offered other meats in addition to goat, as well as some pasta dishes and even some halal American classics.
Al Aruba is cheap and delicious — in fact, we preferred this spot to Waamo. Come early, since it closes at 6 p.m., and you'll be treated to some excellent Somali food. There's also a breakfast menu we look forward to exploring.