October's Can't-Miss Dish

Tawakal Halal Cafe Boston
By Ellen Bhang · 10/05/2020

Looking for a no-fail, mouthwatering, gonna-tell-your-friends-about-it plate? Each month, Boston Globe columnist Ellen Bhang highlights the dish you need to try right now—and something to sip alongside it.

On the plate: Lamb Biryani

Where to find it: Yahya Noor is the affable proprietor of Tawakal Halal Cafe, a homestyle Somali eatery in East Boston. The restaurateur and his family members—several of whom work at the restaurant—are keen on being in step with the neighborhood. “Community is my life,” he says. “It’s not just where you eat and sleep, but also your doorstep.”

Eager to provide more outdoor seating during the pandemic, Noor envisioned a space that would beautify the mainly residential block. The restaurant’s spiffy new parklet—a covered patio, situated curbside with picnic benches and hanging planters—does just that. The build-out, made from sturdy, upcycled materials, is the result of a collaboration between the restaurateur, the food business incubator CommonWealth Kitchen, and CultureHouse, an urban design firm known for pop-ups that transform public spaces. The parklet is the perfect spot to enjoy one of Boston’s best dishes.

Notes on the nosh: Lamb Biryani features a substantial shank that barely fits into its foam container. Noor’s mother braises the meat for hours, smothering it in a saucy tumble of sweet bell peppers. The lamb arrives on a fragrant mound of saffron-stained basmati rice. Salad greens (iceberg lettuce shreds one day, mesclun greens the next) add a leafy counterpoint to the entree. The dish was added to the regular rotation after the menu went to print, so you won’t see it listed; just ask for it.

Every ingredient has a backstory. The lamb is halal—slaughtered by hand in accordance with the most traditional interpretation of Muslim law. (The butcher happens to be married to Noor’s cousin.) Noor deliberately named the seasoned rice ‘biryani’ because he knew many diners would already be familiar with Indian and Pakistani versions of the dish. (In many Somali households, the spiced grains are simply called ‘bariis,’ the Somali word for rice.) The biryani’s seasonings—which include green cardamom pods and whole cumin seeds—are sourced from a purveyor in Dubai. Everyone in this kitchen insists on fresher-than-fresh spices.

Sip alongside: Round out this hearty meal with Shaah, a sweetened black tea mulled with cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves. Served hot, the beverage can be ordered with or without milk. Under the canopied parklet, this Somali-style chai will warm your heart as well as your hands.

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