Down East 2013 ©
Not far from the banks of the Androscoggin River, Lewiston’s narrow main drag is lined with liquor outlets, a pawnshop, and the back end of the Acme Snowshoe Club. Past the Country Kitchen bread factory but not quite to Fuel, an upscale restaurant at the end of the street, the air escaping the bright yellow interior of 259 Lisbon Street smells of sautéed onions, peppers, and cumin. Welcome to Taste of Three One Café, a tiny Americanized outpost of East Africa that greatly values at least two things most of the rest of the world reveres — soccer and goat meat — and one thing Mainers can get behind — worldly, well-portioned meals.
The Taste of Three One Café seats about fourteen, barely enough to accommodate the crowds at lunch, the busiest time of day. The wall space is packed with framed mementos — photographs of a peacock and a lion, a soccer team portrait from 1974, Mogadishu’s historic Abdul Aziz mosque, and a map of Somalia. Two large menus affixed to one wall show photographs and pricing of each of the sixteen regularly offered meals on the kind of plastic signage you see for McDonald’s combo meals or at Chinese restaurants. Only the offerings here — fava beans for breakfast, spaghetti with beef for lunch, or the oceanic mélange of salmon fish cooked in tomato marinara — reflect a broader pastiche of culinary influences.
The #7, curry goat, for example, comes with flavorful chunks of goat meat, which fall easily from the bone, in a bowl of mildly spiced broth topped with lime. It’s served with a mound of bariis, basmati rice spiced with onions, cumin, bright orange carrots, and canned corn and peas. The #2, chopped chicken with chapati, has more jalapeño heat, fresh sautéed bell peppers, and a generous stack of crispy, oily flatbreads on the side. While the geographic origins of the dishes might point all over — to Italy, India, and the Middle East — the combination of stewed meats, flatbread, and spaghetti is typical of take-out restaurants in southern Somalia. So the Taste of Three One’s food is recognizable, if not totally “authentic” indigenous cuisine, to the thousands of refugees who have made Lewiston their home in the last decade. And it reflects the owner’s outward appeal to the community at large.
Chef Mahamed Mahamud is a rail-thin forty-two-year-old who wears a blue chef jacket in the cooler months. Most mornings he stops to pick up fresh vegetables at Blackie’s Farm Fresh Produce on Sabattus Street. When he’s not cooking, he stands behind the counter serving sweet spicy teas, Italian cappuccinos, and sodas. He prides himself on cooking food he likes, food he thinks his community will like, and food he believes will put a positive face forward for Lewiston. “Food always have a lasting name,” he says in near-perfect English with a lilting cadence, “and that lasting name represent a nation, value, dignity, and honesty,” he says. “We are working together to share in an honest way. I try the best of what I have to show Somali food.”
Mahamud is acutely aware that the perception of Somalia has little to do with protein-rich midday meals or flatbreads made with freshly ground corn. Without hesitation, he remembers the exact date — October 4, 1993 — when American soldiers in the streets of Mogadishu made prime-time news. A decade later, Mahamud moved to Lewiston, by way of Atlanta, Georgia, and landed a job in the kitchen at St. Mary’s Hospital, a position, he says, that “give me the key to this land” — an understanding of Maine and the rudiments of the English language. In 2008, he opened the café with the help of his wife, Shukri Ali.
He’s somewhat of a philosophical guy, prone to dispensing bits of wisdom (“If you kitchen is a mess, don’t ever dream to sell the food”) and ideas about “L/A Underground,” his belief that beneath the surface of a seemingly divided small-town community, food can offer something in common. It can represent both cultural assimilation and the persistence of a foreign culture. “Food is something we share,” he says. “That’s why we have Thanksforgiving in this country. Food is something we live every day.”
Early in the afternoon, the café fills with women in headscarves. Children come in after prayer. Professors and downtown business people stop by. Tom Murphy, a Lewiston police officer and a regular customer, admits the food might not be familiar. “You don’t pop into Longhorns and try the goat . . . But it’s just like any other restaurant,” he says. “I go because I like the food and feel comfortable going there.” Even the least curious and most timid should stop in and try Mahamud’s sambusas. These crispy triangles of fried dough stuffed with ground beef, cumin, salt, and jalapeño pepper are a staple in Somalia. Like the rest of the menu at the Taste of Three One Café, it’s a distinctive snack with a worldly influence.
Taste of Three One Café, 259 Lisbon St., Lewiston. 207-376-4800. Open Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Entrees range from $4.50 to $9. Take out and catering available.