Liban (211 Queen East, at Sherbourne, 416-214-5901) Complete meals for $8 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of Kool-Aid. Average main $7. Open daily 9 am to 1 am. Unlicensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
Somali cuisine is as sparse as the land from which it comes. An arid climate and centuries of political unrest have made its people extremely resourceful at making do with not an awful lot.
Somali cooking also reflects the many cultures that have made this East African nation a multiculti melting pot: grilled meat and veggies from the Middle East, basmati and mild curries from the Subcontinent, spaghetti (!) from colonial Italy and chilies by way of Ethiopia.
Virtually unheard of five years ago, Somali spots are multiplying in Toronto, most of them in downtown's scrappy lower east side.
Only a year old, low-key Liban is one of the most popular, attracting mostly a cabbie clientele rather than forward-thinking foodies. Their loss. Formerly the greasiest of spoons, this squeaky-clean storefront retains its formica lunch counter and stools. First-time restaurateur Liban Abdi hustles up the halal grub, much of it served on circular metal thali-esque trays.
All meals are tax-inclusive and come with plastic pitchers of sugary Kool-Aid-like mango and grapefruit drinks, a small bowl of tasty goat soup, another of innocuous iceberg salad, a choice of three breads, a banana and either biryani-style basmati or Ital noodles. (Trust me - unless you're a traditionalist, go with the rice.)
Since I'm a bit of a contrarian, I opt for the spaghetti alternative when ordering the dish referred to on the fast-food menu complete with photo I.D. over the lunch counter as Chicken Leg With Pasta ($7.99). Alarmingly red but tasty nonetheless, two skinless thighs and a leg sit on a heap of surprising al dente spaghetti dressed with what tastes like bottled barbecue sauce.
The Somali spice palette is not a broad one, butter and dried coriander leaf being its principal notes.
See it in roasted goat, unusually moist sections of on-the-bone meat mixed with fresh tomato, onion and peppers, or chicken steak (both $8.99), lemony pounded and grilled boneless chicken breast.
All meals come additionally sided with a tasty stew of potato, carrot and broad beans that's available as an all-inclusive vegetarian main for $5.99. But it's Liban's spectacular hot sauce, an innocent-looking purée of pale green Scotch bonnet peppers, that sets everything on fire.
That same incendiary stuff ignites Liban's short breakfast card, especially foul - here spelled "full" - a tremendously smoky fava purée squeezed with lime and scooped up with flaky European-style buns or muufu, a sort of sour English muffin. Jabati Liver - thick, delicious strips of tender beef liver stir-fried with lots of onion and crisp green pepper - could be the blue plate special at the Stem minus the pyrotechnics.
We doubt you'll find Oödkac anywhere else. Similar to Ethiopian tibs, it turns out to be a well-done dice of steak sweetened with chocolaty dates (all $5.99 and available till noon with soup, salad, veggie stew, Kool-Aid and a banana).
And the banana? Don't think of it as dessert, as I initially do, but as a mid-meal respite from all that fabulous heat. You'll need it.