My hands were shaking as I entered the dimly lit Maandeeq East African Restaurant and Café (1535 South Havana St.), with three tall Somali men coming in right behind me. Safety wasn't my concern; I was just nervous about how I, a short, winter-white blonde gal from suburbia, would be received at this Somali eatery. I stopped in the large dragon-adorned entryway, a little confused and wondering whether I’d entered the wrong place. The three men behind me walked around me and darted to a room in the back of the restaurant as I continued to stand at the door, momentarily thinking of turning around and heading back to my car. I took a look around the room, noticing that the customers were all men, and then I really started to panic; is it considered appropriate for me, a Western woman, to dine here?
To my relief, I saw a couple of other women coming in and out of the private rooms, and no one even gave me so much as half a glance, let alone looking at me like I shouldn't be there. I saw a small sign on the wooden beam over the booths that read “seat yourself,” so I hesitantly took a table where I could make eye contact with the man at the register to let him know I was there, since no waiters seemed to be around. He was talking with some customers at the table in the front of the room and yelled, “Are you eating here? I’ll bring you the menu once the others are done with it.”
I wondered how many copies of the menu there were — maybe just one, since almost everyone who walked in marched right up to the register and ordered without needing look over a list of dishes. The host/server asked what I wanted to drink, and and hearing that there was delicious, frothy spiced tea (and not knowing what else was offered), I ordered that and a bottled water. For non-regulars who aren't already familiar with the menu, Maandeeq offers water, tea, Coke and Pepsi products as beverage choices, and I also observed many patrons drinking some kind of juice, although that was not listed as an option. No alcohol is served, however, in keeping with Muslim practices.
As promised, the menu made its way into my hands, and I was relieved to see it included pictures of most of the main dishes. Several breakfast items, as well as lunch, dinner and beverages were depicted. As I perused the options, a waiter came by and said, “You have ten minutes, and then I’ll be back to get your order.” I thought it was weird that he was giving me a time limit, but I realized he was just telling me that he needed ten minutes to serve other customers before he’d be back to take my order, since there were two large parties in both private rooms of the restaurant and several other hungry customers who had arrived before me. So, I hunkered down and prepared to be there for a while.
The establishment was clearly formerly a Chinese restaurant, since the dragon ceiling tiles, dragon entry way and Chinese-themed light fixture in the middle of the room still remain. There are a couple of maps of Somalia and Africa on the back wall, the only decor tipping diners off that they’re in an African eatery and egg rolls won’t actually come out with the rice.
The waiter held true to his ten-minute estimate and came over to take my order. Most of the menu was unfamiliar to me, so I hastily ordered the familiar chicken shawarma dish ($12) with a side of rice (a choice of rice, bread, noodles or a veggie plate comes with an entree). I’ll admit that I was disappointed that I hadn't ordered the lamb, since it smelled delicious as a waiter passed my table to deliver the piping-hot dish filled with a reddish concoction to another customer.
The room was filled with chatter and boisterous laughter. Large family gatherings and smiling customers filled both private rooms, and the friendly exchanges in different languages between customers and employees were evidence that this was a haven for Aurora residents originally from East African countries. A huge sense of community washed over me as more and more people flooded in and immediately spoke to the restaurant staff and regulars like they were old friends; a few even smiled and nodded my way. While they may have been intrigued about what I was doing there, no one seemed to care that I was a lone woman eating lunch at a restaurant that serves cuisine I know little about, as I had previously feared would be the case. My initial trepidation started to wear off, and the longer I sat there, the more comfortable I felt.
After a few minutes, a server set down a small cup of broth with nothing more than parsley and garlic bits floating on top and a wedge of lime served alongside. The game, pungent aroma was a clue that this was going to be a culinary treat, despite the soup’s humble appearance. I inhaled the potpourri of thick lamb goodness and slurped the broth off the comically giant spoon (presumably used to serve sesame chicken in a former life). The soup was spicy and complex, with earthy lamb flavor on top of subtle sour notes below — even before I squeezed the lime into it.
Maandeeq's owners must have purchased a "restaurant in a box" from the previous tenant, since even the plates bore a familiar Chinese motif. The yellow-tinged chicken shawarma was definitely not a Chinese menu holdover, though, and was cut into tender strips scented with turmeric and allspice. Alongside, there was a fresh salad with tomato and onion, along with a tangy white dressing. A “side dish” — bigger than the entree itself — of oil-slicked basmati rice with carrots, green beans, onions, peas and a large slice of yam came with the chicken.
A whole banana, considered an integral part of a Somali meal, completed the setup. Somalia was once the number-one producer of bananas in the world, and the fruit's sweetness balances out the spicy flavors prominent in the cuisine of the country. The spicy, red-pepper flecked shawarma was cooled down a notch by the banana and the mild basmati rice, in which a cinnamon stick was buried — one of many aromatics that provided deep scents and flavors.
Afterward, I felt satisfied but not weighed down as I sipped my frothy cinnamon-dusted tea, even though I had eaten more than my body needed. Havana is lined with restaurants serving fried foods and other heavy fare, but Maandeeq serves a square, guilt-free meal, complete with fruit, veggies, grains and lean protein (with a bit of fat from the fried rice).
The host told me that Maandeeq isn't really a mainstream-American restaurant, since those without knowledge of African cuisine shy away before ever trying the food. The staff is small and didn't seem to have specific assigned jobs; everyone pitched in to cook, clean and help customers. The restaurant is now eight years old, so there's probably no plans for renovating the Chinese-themed space anytime soon, but the regular customers don't seem to care. While it is obvious that the focus of the café is not to introduce a new cuisine to Westerners but to provide a place for Somali and other East African natives a home away from home, Maandeeq offers a warm welcome and quality food in a community-focused restaurant for those curious about a cuisine that's otherwise hard to find in Denver.
Maandeeq East African Restaurant and Café is open seven days a week from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner for dine-in or takeout orders. You can call 303-745-2355 to place your takeout order or order online on the restaurant's website.