When, God-willing, we ever travel again, our first stop after landing at Logan Airport will be Tawakal Halal Cafe. The shoebox-sized spot in East Boston—where owner Yahya Noor and his family turn out homestyle Somali food—is becoming a terribly kept secret. Not only is The Boston Globe restaurant critic Devra First a longtime fan; in 2019, Tawakal was one of 50 finalists for Bon Appétit’s The Hot 10: America’s Best New Restaurants.
But none of that seems to phase Noor much, who is laser-focused on his job of being the charming frontman for what is literally his mom’s cooking. If his actual mother isn’t the person rolling Chapati, rinsing rice, or grinding cumin with a mortar and pestle during your visit, you can bet it’s a sister, cousin, or Noor himself.
It’s the homemade approach that makes the Lamb Biryani so tender and fragrant; the shank has a long gentle simmer before being bathed in a spiced tomatoey sauce and making its way to a bed of fluffy, saffron-stained rice. Vegetarians will feel welcome here too, with Hummus or Falafel Biryani variations and the creamy coconut Grits “Soor Iyo Maraq.” And that Chapati—hand-kneaded daily—is wonderful eaten hot off the griddle to scoop up the Vegetarian Platter’s fragrant chickpea stew. It might be even better in the Tawakal Plate, which includes a kind of Somali chilaquiles: strips of chapati cooked in spiced tomato sauce.
If you’ve never eaten Somali food, expect warm spices, cozy carbs, and bright colors from the sweet peppers cooked down until jammy and the turmeric- and saffron- stained rice. If you can take the heat, homemade hot sauce makes the meal. When we ask Noor if he dreams of expanding the restaurant, he says he’s just happy to be making food for the Eastie community. We can see (infrequent) planes taking off from the makeshift patio where we’re digging into fluffy Biryani and sipping Shaah (Somali chai). For now, we’re good right here.
Take home some bottled hot sauce. Tawakal Sauce is always delicious, but in summertime its peppers are sourced from a community garden.
Get the Shaah (Somali chai). Whether hot or iced, this sweet and spiced drink is an essential part of the experience.
Purchase handmade pottery to support local food aid programs at the cafe.
It truly takes a village. Noor leans on his mom and seven sisters to help run the restaurant.