West Washington Street home to intriguing enclave of East African eateries
Think West Washington Street and international food, and undoubtedly a bevy of bodegas, bakeries, and taquerias will come to mind. Indeed, you can’t miss the colorful storefronts stretching street corner to street corner from just a few blocks west of downtown almost to the airport. Need chorizo, fresh tortillas, or a piñata for your Cinco de Mayo party this weekend? You won’t have any trouble finding them in this part of town.
But evidence that Indy’s ethnic diversity is increasing well beyond typical demographic distinctions is popping up in various spots along this stretch of entrepreneurial upstarts. Just follow the neon orange and yellow taxis down to the street to the 5600 block, and you’ll find a handful of Halal markets and cheery East African eateries that are helping to change the very texture of Indy’s cultural fabric. They’re also serving up some intriguing eats you won’t find almost anywhere else in town.
The cabs are double parked at Café Hargeisa, a Somali coffeehouse and smoothie bar where the spirits are high, and sambusas are cheap and delicious. Stop in just about any time of day, and most of the tables will be taken. There may be a line to use the one computer in the back to surf the net. As its patrons are primarily the owners of those taxis, it’s a bit of a boys’ club. But as savvy cosmopolitans know, taxi drivers have the skinny on the best local food, and these guys aren’t here just for the camaraderie.
They’re here for the coffee, as just about everyone had a paper cup in hand as they chatted and passed cellphones to each other across their tables. They’re also here for the smoothies ($2), a surprising and surprisingly affordable find at this cozy café. The man at the counter said he could make anything from a simple strawberry smoothie to one with avocado and banana. We opted for his choice, which turned out to be a light and frothy concoction of strawberry, watermelon and banana without the typically viscous additions of yogurt or condensed milk. It was a perfect refresher to wash down sambusas ($1), just about the only other items on the menu. Rich fried pastry filled with lightly seasoned ground beef, they were a bit like a samosa you might get at an Indian restaurant, though not as crunchy. Definitely a great afternoon snack.
Just steps away is a more ambitious eatery serving up hearty lunches and authentic Somali breakfasts. Recently relocated from its 38th and Georgetown location, Safari Restaurant offers an eclectic assortment of East African dishes. Trying to negotiate the menu, which includes a colorful scrapbook of photos of food — some available and some coming attractions — can be tricky. Smarter is asking what’s good for lunch and letting the staff bring the food to you as they will.
The new location is stark but strangely comforting, with long lace curtains on the windows, white plastic tablecloths and beige walls adorned with a mixture of African arts and Colts banners. But the staff is friendly and welcoming. The woman who greeted us later told us that their goat meat comes fresh every Thursday from a farm in Greenwood and is butchered under strict Halal specifications. Once she disappeared into the back, we could hear her contented whistling rise above the comforting clatter of chopping knives.
After a cup of hot milky chai, intriguing and diverse salad plates turned up, dressed with peeled and seeded cucumbers, tasty cooked carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, and a pile of iceberg lettuce. A sweet poppyseed dressing accompanied. Creamy but not mushy, the potatoes were especially delicious, amazingly so as they were simply boiled with salt. Two plates of warm foul, a fava bean salad popular at breakfast, took a bit of heat from some added green chilis. “Angera,” a thinner version of the Ethiopian buckwheat crêpe “injera,” made for great dipping.
Though clearly an acquired taste, goat stew was quite tender and clearly fresh, if a tad gristly. A light white-meat chicken stew with just a kick of spice came with yet another delicious bread, chapatti, also more familiar through Indian cuisine as a multilayered fried roti-like flatbread. Most dishes were in the $6-$10 range. As a big puffy muufo, yet another East African bread, came out, and as we paged through the menu’s colorful photos showing pots of butter and honey, we pledged we’d be back to the Westside soon for a traditional East African breakfast. Or another sambusa. Or a smoothie.
5636 W. Washington St.
Hours: Monday-Sunday: 9:00 a.m. - 9:00 p.m.
5602 W. Washington St.
Hours: Monday-Sunday: 9:00 a.m. - 8:00 p.m.