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Review: Jubba

San Jose's Jubba specializes in the unusual cuisine of Somalia

MENTION Somalia, and most people think of warlords, pirates and Blackhawk Down. But I would like to plant a more pleasant word in your mind: suqaar.

Suqaar (“su-car”) is one of Somalia’s national dishes. It’s a saucy, stir-fried dish typically prepared with beef or goat along with onions, bell peppers and a handful of spices. Suqaar tastes great spooned into spongy injera or rolled up in a hot chapati. Silicon Valley is blessed with a wide variety of ethnic cuisine, but as far as I know, Jubba is the area’s only Somali restaurant and therefore the only place to eat suqaar.

One-year-old Jubba is an odd-looking restaurant in an odd location. The dining room and kitchen form an arc, like a half-circle. It’s a bare-bones place with little in the way of adornment or atmosphere except for the passing light rail trains. The restaurant occupies a rather lonely shopping center between the train stop and an apartment complex. In spite of the tucked-away location, it’s easy to get to.

The menu is quite small and meat-centric, as befits a cuisine created by a nomadic culture. When you’re constantly on the move, it’s not possible to grow crops, but you can take your herd with you. Industrialization and the growth of cities have eroded Somalia’s nomadic culture, but it’s still a meat-loving nation.

“Most people in the cities have roots in the nomadic culture,” says Abdulahi Ali, whose cousin Aaminia Nur owns the restaurant with her husband. He speaks better English than she does, so I spoke to him instead of her.

Given Somalia’s border with Ethiopia, I figured that Somali food would have much more in common with its neighbor to the west, but the only similarities I found were the use of spongy injera, a pancakelike bread, and clarified butter. Unlike the Ethiopian version of injera, the Somali version, or at least what they serve at Jubba, is less sour and smaller than the tarp-size rolls of bread you get at Ethiopian restaurants.

As a country with the second-longest coastline in Africa, Somalia is open to the world, and its food demonstrates that. To start your meal, be sure to get an order of sambusa, triangular fried pastries filled with ground beef, potatoes and spices. Or get two. They’re only a buck apiece. If they look and sound familiar, they should. They are Somalia’s take on an Indian samosa.
“We have a border with India, and that’s the Indian Ocean,” jokes Ali.

Jubba also serves chapati: a sweetish, buttery take on flat bread that originated in northern India.

Italy occupied Somalia until 1941, when the country won its independence. The Italians departed, but they left behind a fondness for spaghetti. Meals at Jubba come with a choice of rice, injera, chapati or spaghetti. If they served potatoes, they would have every starchy side dish in the world represented here.

Back to the suqaar, which is available with chunks of beef or chicken ($10). Both are quite good. It’s a bit salty, but the savory mix of spices (cumin, coriander and turmeric) enlivens the currylike sauce and makes it easy to love. If you didn’t know this was a Somali restaurant, you wouldn’t think you were eating anything particularly exotic. It’s just good. An even better way to eat it, I think, is as a sandwich ($7) rolled up in chapati with lettuce and tomatoes. It’s like a Somali burrito.

Goat is the perfect meat for a nomadic culture, but it’s pretty unremarkable at Jubba. The bits of bone-in goat ($10) are juicy and moist but don’t have much flavor. Goat is not as gamey as you might think, but I was looking for something more distinctive and robust given how lively the suqaar is.

Jubba also serves American and Somali breakfast (injera and meat), but I didn’t make it in for that. Be sure to get a cup of the African sweet tea, which is quite sweet but good and steeped with cardamom, ginger and cinnamon. It’s free with your meal, but otherwise it goes for a $1.

The owners of Jubba are considering moving to a new location that might attract more customers. As long as they keep serving that suqaar, I think they’ll do OK, especially since they’re they only game in town.

Address: 5330 Terner Way,
San Jose.
Phone: 408.440.1504.
Hours: 5am–10m Mon–Fri and 6am–10pm Sat–Sun.
Cuisine: Somali.
Price Range: $7–$20.