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Blue Star Cafe
1619 N. Farwell Ave.
Prices: Sides, $1.50-$4.50; sandwiches, $5.99; entrees, $8.99-9.99
What to try: Sambusas, lamb platter with rice, vegetable crepes, hummus
When it comes to African cuisine, Milwaukee is on an upswing. While for years, there was a paucity of representation from countries as widespread and distinct as South Africa, Somalia and The Gold Coast, there are now a number of restaurants where you can sample cuisine from a variety of African countries.
Among them is Blue Star Cafe, a humble spot on the East Side that serves up comforting, (super) affordable Somali dishes for both lunch and dinner six days a week.
The cuisine of Somalia claims rich influences from East Africa, Arabia, Turkey and Italy, as well as India and Pakistan. That’s thanks to decades spent under Italian and British rule, as well as the country’s history as a hub for the spice trade. The traditions of Islam also influence the cuisine, which adheres to the guidelines of halal. Unlike the cuisine of neighboring Ethiopia, Somali dishes rely heavily on meats including chicken, beef and goat.
Diners will find dishes flavorful thanks to the use of myriad spices; however, chilies are typically not added directly to dishes. Instead, they reside in condiments like basbaas cagaar, a sauce made with green chilies, which can be applied to dishes as desired. Blue Star’s version is deliciously bright with citrus, and it packs a moderate heat. If you can tolerate a bit of kick, it’s beautiful with just about any dish on the menu. Entrees are also served with an accompaniment of thick yogurt, so you can cool your palate if needed.
The chili sauce is particularly good with sambusas. The origin of the triangular pastries (also called sambuus) resides in the Middle East but are eaten widely throughout Africa, Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
At Blue Star you’ll find fillings like richly spiced beef, redolent with cumin, coriander and cardamom and surrounded by a beautifully light, flaky pastry that’s not unlike Greek phyllo. Order one, for sure. Or maybe more. They’re so good you’ll be tempted to forgo the remainder of your meal for another bite.
However, that would be a mistake. The Blue Star Menu appears deceivingly small. Nonetheless, it would take a good number of trips to eat through every possible combination of platters, crepes and sandwiches.
If you order one of the restaurant's platters, prepare to make a number of decisions. First you’ll choose your base: salad, rice, angel hair pasta or penne (the latter thanks to the influence left from Somali’s history as an Italian occupied country). Next, you'll select among a variety of meat or vegetable accompaniments including goat, beef or chicken suqar (sauteed meat with vegetables), tilapia, salmon, chopped chicken pieces or veggie qudar, a combination of spinach and mixed vegetables.
Choose goat atop rice and you’ll relish a dish that’s ripe with flavor, from the tender, lightly seasoned goat meat (it pulls easily with a fork), flavorful onions dyed a festive red and a liberal smattering of raisins and cubes of potato. Choose basmati rice and you’ll find it tender and heady with the aroma of spices … cinnamon, cumin, coriander and cardamom. It too, is flecked with food coloring, creating a festive, beautiful dish. Be sure to give the dish a squeeze of fresh lemon; the acid creates balance that makes all the flavors pop.
Meanwhile, Somali crepes (malawah) are thicker than the French variety and slightly sweet. They're doppled with toasty brown spots, making an attractive and tasty wrapper for any of the meat dishes or (pictured here) a hearty serving spinach, peas, corn and carrots. Ramp up the flavor with a bit of basbaas cagaar for spice or the thick yogurt, which offers a fresh tang.
Opt for the kay kay and you’re in for an equally delicious treat. Traditional Somali flatbread – similar to Indian chapatis – is sliced and fried before being topped with your choice of meats or vegetables. The bread naturally soaks up all the extra juices, offering flavor, bite after bite.
Each of the meats are also available as a hefty sandwich, dressed with mayonnaise and layered with cucumber, lettuce, onion, tomato and potato. They're a steal at $5.99.
So is the beautifully silky hummus, served with warm toasted flatbread and topped artfully with cucumber, tomato and the prerequisite drizzle of flavorful olive oil. It’s a generous, shareable portion for the price; but I’d be more than happy polishing it off myself and calling it lunch. In fact, I just might the next time I pay this East Side gem a visit.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.