Restaurant review: Delightful Hoyo's Kitchen cooks terrific Somali dishes

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Columbus is home to the second largest Somali-American population in the United States, so the cuisine of that east African nation is well-represented here. No local restaurant cooks it better or is more user-friendly than Hoyo’s Kitchen on the Northeast Side.

Another plus: Hoyo’s Kitchen displays visual charms belying its strip-mall setting. Its tasteful appointments include sleek blond wood, black tablecloths, snazzy dark floor tile sporting kaleidoscopic images and fanciful framed graphic adornments 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. But along with the name change (Hoyo means “mother” in Somali) 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. Good thing the food still rocks.

Somalia borders Ethiopia and the Indian Ocean, so it’s hardly startling that Somali cuisine shares things with Indian and Ethiopian food. What might be surprising is how accessible it can be to Midwestern palates.

Whether ordering at the counter or seating yourself for table service, Hoyo’s Bajiya (5 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 dark brown, puffy discs with a terrific crunch are distinguished by a vinegar tingle playing off diced-onion sweetness.

Sambusas are savory triangular pastries akin to Indian samosas. Hoyo’s pillowy, flaky and pretty pouches are addictive. Three fillings are available — my favorites were the spicy ground beef and the chopped veggie (peas, potatoes, carrots, onion).

Though 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 entails multiple decisions. After choosing a better-valued “combo plate” ($11; $10 for all vegetable) over a “bowl,” you’ll pick a main starch. During my visits, not everything on the menu was available. Three options always on hand were excellent rice (fluffy, scented with turmeric) and two flatbreads.

One flatbread, Sabayat, closely resembles Indian chapati in more than name. On one occasion, the thin yet multi-layered 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 thinner and less tangy than the Ethiopian norm, but good.

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 dessert-y, Hoyo’s sweet vermicelli with cardamom and raisins tastes just like good kheer (Indian rice pudding).

This brings us to a meat choice. Though you really can’t go wrong, fragrant chicken or beef suqaar — tender and delicious stir-fries enlivened by onions, peppers and an aromatic tomato sauce (a recurring theme) — are can’t miss.

Like something spicy? Try the salmon, which tastes like it’s kissed with the Ethiopian-beloved spice blend called berbere. If you really want to crank up the heat, apply some of Hoyo’s winning hot sauce (think vinegary, muscular A1 sauce).

Based on the mildly lamb-y, herb-sprinkled and succulent bone-in pieces I received, this is also a good place to get your goat. Since there’s no alcohol, and because bananas are popular with Somali meals, try it with a soothing banana and mango smoothie ($3.50). Though you’re consuming the meal in a strip mall, it tastes like a mini vacation to a faraway place.

Photos by Meghan Ralston

Hoyo's Kitchen

5786 Emporium Square, Northeast Side