Before Nasra “Jamila” Ibrahim emigrated to the United States from Somalia in 1994, she worked at her brother’s restaurant in Mogadishu. Ever since then, the idea of opening a restaurant of her own has lingered in the back of her mind.
On Monday, July 27, she officially opened J’s Sambusa, named after a popular Somali meat pie filled with ground beef and spices. She said she and her husband were looking for an investment, and the location, 503 Belgrade Ave., was perfect for a restaurant.
“We found out this was for sale and it was a good location and a good opportunity,” Ibrahim told the Mankato Free Press. “This is the first time I’m opening a business in the United States, so I’m a little bit nervous but I’m very happy.”
Ibrahim, of Eagle Lake, purchased the building last October and spent the next six months transforming the former bar into a family restaurant.
“We did the interior and also outside,” she said. “We painted and changed the colour. We changed the bathrooms and I changed a lot of stuff in the kitchen, so it made it a lot of fun. We innovated a lot.”
She hired a cook who she knew from her time in Atlanta before moving to Minnesota who ran his own restaurant there and more recently worked at Quruxlow, a popular Somali restaurant in Minneapolis.
Along with sambusas, the restaurant serves a wide variety of Somali cuisine, including suqaar—a dish of grilled chicken or beef cooked with onion, garlic, green pepper and rice—to bajiya, which is what customer Lauren Mendez McConkey, of Mankato, opted for that Monday.
“It’s a bean fritter and was a perfect appetiser,” she said. “The sauce was good and had just the amount of spice for what I can handle. It tasted fresh and the service was awesome.”
Excited to try new flavours
Mendez McConkey, who has tried sambusas before at Minnesota State University’s culture nights and through friends, said this was her first time trying a Somali entrée.
“I’ve had tastes here and there, but this was the first full-meal experience,” she said.
Sue Liebl and her son Alex, who played soccer with Ibrahim’s son, heard about the restaurant’s opening on social media. She had the suqaar and Alex Liebl had the Chicken Fantastic, served with sautéed vegetables on a bed of rice and a Somali flatbread called sabayad.
It was their first experience with Somali cuisine, and both were excited to try some new flavours. The two often head up to the Twin Cities for its array of international restaurants and said they’re happy to see Mankato’s food scene slowly becoming more diverse.
“There’s not much of the African cuisine and flavours here,” Alex Liebl said. “So, it’s kind of fun to see it being embraced not just up in the Twin Cities but also down here now.”
Customer Lydia Cooper, of Mankato, decided to try the goat, which Ibrahim said is comparable to lamb.
“It was fantastic,” Cooper said. “I’m definitely going to order it again. I like having different foods and flavours to try. We don’t have a lot of that in Mankato, so I’m excited we have that here.”
Ibrahim also had some out-of-state customers who just happened to be driving by. Nathan Koerner, of Sioux City, Iowa, and Dirk Grenemeier, of Lincoln, Nebraska, were in town working on flood restoration following the weekend’s heavy rain.
“We were down at the city office getting some information from them, saw this place, turned around and came back,” Grenemeir said. “It reminds me a little bit of Middle Eastern food and the sauce was good.”
Ibrahim said Somali cuisine is influenced in part by Indian food. The two countries have a long history of trading with each other, and a lot of Indians and Somalis have married as a result, solidifying their culinary influences on each other.
Spaghetti is another common dish in Somalia—it was once an Italian colony—and it’s one of Ibrahim’s favourite dishes to make at home, smothered with Parmesan cheese.
The restaurant also features desserts such as Somali pound cake and a Somali-style crepe called malawah, which customers can wash down with a guava and mango juice or a cup of Somali tea or coffee, spiced with cardamom, cinnamon and ginger.
“The spices help with digestion when you’re full,” Ibrahim said.
Other spices, such as cumin, a common ingredient in Somali cooking, are ground in the kitchen. Ibrahim said everything is prepared fresh, with most of the meat sourced from a Halal butcher in Minneapolis.
Ibrahim said she’s holding off on indoor dining because of Covid for the time being, but customers can dine outside on the patio or pick up orders for carryout. The restaurant, which has a Facebook page, is open seven days a week.