Until I visited Portland’s Mini Mogadishu last month, I had never eaten at a restaurant with a throne. I’ve dined alongside a cross-sectioned yellow school bus, behind bars in a jail cell and on an opera balcony overlooking a life-sized model of a flying saucer – but those were all novelty interiors with no purpose other than to dazzle customers. Mini Mogadishu’s baroque wooden throne is a functional piece of décor, not just a wacky conversation starter.

“It’s from a wedding we had recently. The bride gets to sit up there,” said our server, dressed in track pants and loose-fitting sandals that plipped and plopped each time he shuffled in sleepily from the kitchen. “We do so many parties and weddings. I don’t know if it’s going to stay, but maybe.” He shrugged, then deposited our drinks on the table: cool, freshly pressed watermelon juice ($3); mango juice ($4) so thick with puréed fruit that it could have qualified as a smoothie; and a clear glass of hot, cavity-inducingly sweet Somali tea ($1), spiced with cinnamon, cardamom and cloves.

As my friends and I sipped our drinks and decided what to order, it was hard to stay focused on the menu. Our gaze kept moving up from the plastic-covered white tablecloth, past the matching ruched chair covers, to the dozens of colorful tapestries pinned overhead to divide the space and soften the glare from fluorescent lights. Suspended next to garish paper lanterns and fans, they transformed the ceiling into an upside-down, Technicolor stage set straight out of an Annette Funicello movie. Very festive.

According to Abdisalam Yousuf, one of the cooks and son of chef/co-owner Nimo Saeed, the restaurant’s evolution into a site for celebration happened naturally. “It really wasn’t planned that way. When we got the space, we realized that it was really large, bigger than we thought. My mom and her friend (chef/co-owner Halimo Mohamud) have been part of the Somali community here for 16 or 17 years, and people just started asking them if they could hold events here. We’ve done weddings, gatherings, even a city council event,” he said. “But the food is home-style cooking. It’s the kind of lunch or dinner you would get at a Somali person’s house.”

If you have never eaten Somali food before, it is, like many cuisines today, a bit of a melting pot. There are components like tender brown lentils and flat, crepe-like bread (aanjeera) that will remind you of foodways from Eritrea and Ethiopia, neighboring Horn of Africa countries. Others, like blistery, charred japaati and basmati rice will bring to mind Indian and Pakistani cooking. And for an extra twist, Somali cuisine has found a way to embrace its less-than-sanguine colonial past through tomato sauces and pasta.

At the same time, Somali cooking possesses its own unmistakable identity, building flavors through slow simmering and flamboyant use of spice blends called xawaash that derive most of their punch from cardamom, turmeric, coriander and cinnamon.

Order any of the meals that include beef suqaar ($13 a la carte, or $25/$45 as part of the shared plate for two or four people), and you’ll get a perfect encapsulation of Saeed and Mohamud’s take on Somali home cooking. Here, steak is cubed, then stewed with onions and umami-intensifying Maggi, before being fried off in vegetable oil, finished in the oven and served with thin spaghetti and/or basmati rice done in an onion-and-clove scented, pilaf-style. The result is beef with a bright, floral complexity of aromas and tastes. I couldn’t stop eating it, even though the meat was a bit overdone.

Chicken thighs prepared the same way ($12 a la carte) were even better (if similarly overcooked). I have this dish to thank for one of my new favorite bites: strands of thin spaghetti, slick with chicken fat and vibrating like guitar strings from ripples of green cardamom, cumin and sautéed onion.

Both dishes, as well as the shared plates, come with a tiny steel bowl of green chili sauce, a puree of jalapeño, garlic, salt, cucumber and lime. It wields sharp, glass-like points of fire, but these are brighter and cool down quicker than the dark red intensity of Eritrean and Ethiopian berbere.

On the slow-roasted, cilantro-marinated lamb shank ($15 a la carte), a dab or two of the jalapeño sauce adds a sparkling layer of acid and spice to the tender meat. As an ingredient in the Somali chili ($15 as part of the Somali aanjeera platter), it underlines and italicizes the sweetness of stewed tomatoes.

A shared plate for two with rice, pasta, hilib (lamb), chicken and beef suqaar. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Both the Somali chili and its companion dishes – a garlicky, mineral sauteed spinach and brown lentils simmered all day in a housemade vegetable stock – are best when scooped up by hand in a torn strip of aanjeera, a golden brown-surfaced soft pancake that is the third cousin to Ethiopian injera. By creating structure with fermented oat flour in place of teff, Somali aanjeera gives up some of its relative’s sponginess in exchange for a darker color and sweeter, nuttier flavor.

“We eat it as a snack. Or for breakfast,” our server said, gesturing to the basket of aanjeera, then pointing at my glass, “With tea sometimes.” I could see why immediately. It had the toasty, indulgently carb-y appeal of simple comfort food.

At the same time, each round of aanjeera on our table displayed a subtle flash of elegance: a perfect, pale spiral puff where the batter was ladled, then expertly coaxed from the center to the perimeter of a hot griddle. Modest, yet special – the kind of dish equally suited to nibbling during an ordinary morning at the kitchen table, or at a fancy banquet, seated on an ornate throne.

Correction: This story was updated at 5:15 p.m. on August 17, 2017 to correct the restaurant’s hours of service.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

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Twitter: @AndrewRossME