How many Americans can tell the difference between Ethiopia and Eritrea? How about Somalia and Somaliland? The Horn of Africa is a challenging region for outsiders to understand. Years of conflict have created deep rivalries and, in some cases, de facto states existing side-by-side with ineffectual national governments. If you’re not up to solving all of the area’s problems, you can at least enjoy a blend of its culinary traditions at Juba, a restaurant with a menu that combines the foods of Ethiopia, Somalia, and other countries near the Red Sea.
|messob, injera, and sambusa|
The mixture of cuisines results from the origins of the restaurant itself. A few years ago, the site was home to Blue Nile, an Ethiopian restaurant. Then, Blue Nile was sold and became a second location for Juba, a Somali restaurant with its original location on McDowell Road in Phoenix. The result was not a carbon copy of the Phoenix Juba, but instead a new hybrid that retains Blue Nile’s Ethiopian menu and offers it side-by-side with a separate Somali and Middle Eastern menu that is a bit less exotic than the one found on McDowell Road.
The location is the corner pocket of the Tempe Towne Plaza shopping center, located just a block or two east of the University / Rural light rail station. The area is designed more for cars than pedestrians, but a safe route is to walk along Rural to 8th Street and then use the rough path from there into the parking lot. Bicyclists might want to pedal down Terrace and then use the connector path from there over 8th Street. A bike rack near Juba seems to change exact location at least once a week, but it’s always visible from the restaurant’s door.
The interior is divided into two rooms, which are essentially unchanged from the Blue Nile days. in fact, clippings of reviews of the old restaurant are still on the walls. One room is a straightforward dining area made interesting by a few tables with various grains and legumes used in Ethiopian cooking displayed under glass tops. Next door is a second room where diners can sit in a more leisurely style on cushions and rugs placed around disc-shaped tables on the floor. This room is well suited to group dining involving shared platters of food. Just take off your shoes upon entry.
Sit in either room. Focus on either Ethiopian or Somali food. Either way, if you’re looking for a hearty starter, the sambusa is the Horn of Africa’s fried appetizer of choice. They’ll be familiar to anyone who has enjoyed Lebanese sambusek or Indian somasas. A triangular pocket of dough surrounds a filling of chopped chicken, ground beef, or minced vegetables. The fillings are mild and the exterior is crisp. They come two to an order and are slightly cheaper from the Somali menu than the Ethiopian one, even though the preparation is the same regardless of nationality.
The Ethiopian menu is largely the same one that Blue Nile used to offer here, but some of the more esoteric items are no longer available, so ask for guidance. The basic concept behind an Ethiopian meal is a messob, a platter with two or three dishes served with injera, a spongy, absorbent bread traditionally made from teff but sometimes with other grains when teff is hard to come by. Utensils are optional. Instead, tear a piece of injera and use it to scoop the meats, vegetables, and legumes on the platter. The bread soaks up the sauces, providing an extra bit of flavor.
Messobs usually involve several wats, or stews, made from bite-sized pieces of meat and vegetables, often cooked in a spice mixture known as berbere. Doro watt is a popular choice; it mixes two foods familiar to American palates, chicken and hard-boiled eggs. We’re used to seeing these separately but seldom together. Tikil gomen presents collard greens in an appealing stew where the leaves are far less leathery than skeptical diners might expect. Lentils and yellow split peas are plant-based sources of protein that show up in several Ethiopian preparations.
|chicken kabob plate|
While long-standing customers who used to frequent Blue Nile are no doubt used to Ethiopian food, the Somali menu is new to Tempe and seems to draw its own fans. The Somali food is generally meatier. Sukhaar is a signature dish with marinated chicken strips grilled and served either in a chapati wrap or on a big plate with rice and salad. In theory, pasta is also available in an apparent nod to an Italian colonial influence, but it’s seldom actually available. Like its Ethiopian counterpart, the Somali menu is sometimes more a list of possibilities than a definitive statement.
Meat combined with rice or chapati appears in a variety of other configurations, including lamb shank and goat. The latter is tender and not at all gamey. It does, however, require more work in terms of separating meat from bones and fat than customers used to boneless chicken breast may expect. There are also Middle Eastern foods such as falafel and shawarma on the menu, and they’re generally good, but the restaurant’s unique appeal lies not in familiar dishes from lands east of the Red Sea, but in less commonly seen foods from the west side of the same body of water.
This is a halal restaurant, so there’s no liquor license. Aside from sodas, there’s a potent Somali iced tea, fruit juices, and smoothies. The exact flavors of those last two items vary without much predictability. Sometimes, a watermelon drink is available. Other days, it might be mango. For dessert, there’s a display at the counter with baklava and the vegan coffee cake, a popular item at Blue Nile, has been continued on the Juba menu. With the region’s turmoil, it can be hard to keep up with events in the Horn of Africa, but at least it’s possible to eat heartily while attempting to do so.
933 East University Dr., Tempe AZ 85281
University Drive / Rural Road Station