Columbus is home to the second-largest Somali-American population in the United States, so the cuisine of the east African nation is well-represented here.
No local restaurant cooks Somali food better or is more diner-friendly than Hoyo’s Kitchen on the Northeast Side.
Another plus: Hoyo’s Kitchen displays visual charms that belie its strip-mall setting. The tasteful appointments include sleek blond wood, black tablecloths, snazzy dark floor tiles that sport kaleidoscopic images and fanciful framed artwork on burnt-orange walls.
Hoyo’s spiffy digs and skillful cooking aren’t markedly different from when the restaurant was called Solay Bistro under previous ownership. Along with the name change (Hoyo means mother in Somali), though, came a “fast-casual” designation and menu alterations designed to streamline ordering. I appreciate the good intentions, but dining here isn’t always fast, and placing orders isn’t so simple. It’s a good thing the food rocks.
Somalia borders Ethiopia and the Indian Ocean, and its cuisine shares traits with Ethiopian and Indian food. What might be surprising is how accessible it can be to Midwestern palates.
Whether you order at the counter or seat yourself for table service, Hoyo’s bajiya (five for $3) and sambusa ($1.25) make wonderful starters. My server compared bajiya to falafel, but they were far closer to vegetable pancakes (a la zucchini or potato). The puffy, dark-brown discs with a terrific crunch are distinguished by a vinegar tingle that plays off a diced-onion sweetness.
Sambusas are savory triangular pastries similar to Indian samosas. Hoyo’s flaky, pillowy pouches are addictive. Three fillings are available. My favorites were the spicy ground beef and the chopped veggie (peas, potatoes, carrots and onions).
Although my cabbage-based bowl of brothy Somali soup ($3) was just warm, its gentle curry notes demonstrated Hoyo’s talent for highlighting, rather than overpowering, natural flavors.
Ordering entrees means making multiple decisions.
After choosing a better-value “combo plate” ($11, or $10 for all vegetables) over a “bowl,” you’l l pick a main starch. During my visits, not everything on the menu was available. Three options always on hand were excellent rice (fluffy and scented with turmeric) and two flatbreads.
One flatbread, sabayat, closely resembles Indian chapati. On one occasion, the thin, multilayered sabayat slices were warm, flaky, buttery, crisp and delicious. On another, they were cool, stiff, chewy and disappointing.
Injera, the fermented flatbread that serves as an edible plate in Ethiopian cuisine, is also offered. Hoyo’s is good but thinner and less tangy than the Ethiopian norm.
Two sides also need to be selected. If something hearty is calling, both the chickpeas and lentils (daal) are expertly seasoned by a sauce lively with cooked-down tomato, onion and paprika. For something green, go with the naturally sweet, long-cooked cabbage. For something that can be eaten for dessert, Hoyo’s sweet vermicelli with cardamom and raisins tastes like good kheer (Indian rice pudding).
This brings us to a meat choice (all good). A can’t-miss is the fragrant chicken or beef suqaar — tender stir-fries enlivened by onions, peppers and fragrant tomato sauce.
Like something spicy? Try the salmon, which tastes as if it has been flavored with berbere, an Ethiopian spice blend.
Based on the mildly lamblike, herb-sprinkled and succulent bone-in pieces I received, this is also a good place to get your goat. Because alcohol isn’t served, and because bananas are popular with Somali meals, try the goat with a banana-and-mango smoothie ($3.50).
Although you’re consuming the meal in a strip mall, it tastes like a mini-vacation to a faraway place.
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Hoyo's Kitchen5786 Columbus Square
Hours: noon to 9 p.m. daily
Rating: 3 stars (out of five)
Price range: $7 to $11 (entrees)
Ambience: handsome, spacious and generally quiet
Children’s menu: no
Reservations: call ahead for large parties
Liquor license: none
Quick click: big portions, small prices and top-notch Somali cuisine