By G.A. Benton For The Columbus Dispatch
Wednesday December 11, 2019
Exceeding 40,000 people, the Somali community in Columbus is second-largest in America. Consequently — and variety-loving diners will happily attest to this — Somali fare is hardly rare in central Ohio.
Until recently, though, no centrally located Somali eateries existed to help steer the cuisine deeper into the Columbus mainstream. This changed a few months ago, when a second branch of family-run Hoyo’s Kitchen (“hoyo” means mother) set up shop in the bustling and iconic North Market.
This new restaurant is a spinoff of the popular, 5-year-old Hoyo’s Kitchen in the Columbus Square Shopping Center. The original Hoyo’s is somewhat of an extension of a previous Somali restaurant — Solay Bistro — that opened at the same address in 2010. Long story short: good Somali food has been available in the area for many years, but now you can find it in the heart of Columbus.
As a North Market stall, the new Hoyo’s is a scaled-down version of its sibling. Here, you will find cafeteria-style service and three stools at a counter — but there is abundant seating on the market’s revamped second floor. The menu is small, too: just a few dishes highlighted by five huge-but-affordable entree bowls.
New to Somali food? Here’s a mini primer: Somalia borders the Indian Ocean and Ethiopia, and its cuisine shares characteristics with Indian, Ethiopian and Mediterranean food. So even most neophytes can expect it to offer many familiar ingredients and easy-to-like flavors.
At the new Hoyo’s, you can choose a bowl foundation of loose-and-fragrant basmati rice, salad, or the tomato-based, accurately titled and sometimes-clumpy spicy rice. Two options made with compelling house breads are available, too: A wrap fashioned with sabayad — a warm, flaky, slightly sweet flatbread resembling Indian paratha — or a side of properly sour and spongy injera (with hints of soy sauce) to scoop up the bowl’s contents. You really can’t go wrong, but I’m partial to bowls anchored by the flavor-bomb spicy rice supplemented with a side of either house bread ($2).
You can build a deeply satisfying all-vegetarian bowl ($10) by adding dal-style lentils, chickpeas prepared similarly to mild chana masala, homey spinach cooked down with peas and potatoes, large cabbage leaves simmered until their natural sweetness emerges, and salad ingredients.
For a few dollars more, you can adorn your bowl with a generous load of one of four delicious meats (meat bowls include two of the aforementioned cooked veggies). While the flavorful goat ($13) I received was a mix of tender and very chewy meat, every other protein I sampled was an unqualified winner.
Chicken fans are in good hands. The Safari chicken bowl ($11) stars long, tender planks of poultry with a lively herb-and-spice rub. If you like it hot, the marvelous chicken suqqar recalls an Indian-style curry ($11).
What’s in its killer sauce? “Special spices, tomato paste and love,” answered one of Hoyo’s super-friendly servers. I tasted all of that — plus turmeric, cayenne and paprika.
Cinnamon notes lend a whiff of shawarma meat to the zippy, tender and hearty beef suqqar ($12) — a stew cooked with tomatoes, onions and peppers. This teams especially well with injera, lentils and chickpeas.
Don’t sleep on Hoyo’s soft drinks ($2.50). My favorite is the pulpy and refreshing ginger-pineapple lemonade, but the fruit-forward mango and tamarind juices make fine matches for Hoyo’s spice-kissed food as well.
Prefer something steaming hot? The sweet-and-milky Somali chai tea ($3.25), redolent of cloves and cardamom, is extremely comforting.
Get a sambusa, too (a steal for $2.50). The savory, warm-and-flaky pastries feature a zesty filling of ground chicken or ground beef sauteed with onions and, I’m pretty sure, special spices and love.