Journalist Sarah Efron explores strip malls and hole-in-the-wall restaurants in search of the city's best ethnic food

Friday, July 19, 2013

The real Somali culture of Toronto

If your only information about Toronto's Somali community comes from the news media, you could easily come to believe that the community is comprised entirely of drug dealing, gun toting thugs. A visit to Dabagoye, a Somali restaurant located a few streets over from the infamous Rexdale house where Rob Ford posed in a photo with alleged gangsters, reveals another side to this Toronto community of 80,000 people. 


Dabagoye shares double-billing with an African church in this desolate industrial strip of Martin Grove Road near the airport. You won't find the restaurant mentioned on Yelp or Chowhound, but it's well known to Somali-Canadians living in nearby apartment complexes or coming to the city from places like Brampton, Hamilton and Kitchener. 

My Somali-Canadian friend Maram heard about the restaurant through her relatives at a recent family wedding. The name Dabagoye comes from the nickname of the family who runs the place. It means "tail-cutter," a reference to their northern Somali grandfather's practice of cutting the tails of his camels as a way to brand them and avoid having them stolen. Maram explains that it's common practice for a family to receive a nickname based on their head of household's traits: for example, you might be called "Crazy Mohammed" or "Ali Big Ears" thanks to your father's standout features.  
Somali food blends African cuisine with Italian colonial influences, and the results are fantastic.  First off comes a bowl of veggie soup that has a surprisingly intense flavour thanks to the goat meat broth.

Enormous platters start coming to the table in quick succession. The goat meat chops are incredibly tender and fall off the bone with a soft nudge. Seasoned with garlic, lemon and pepper, it's certainly much better than the same dish served at the downtown Somali restaurants. A second plate comes with a mountain of dense couscous coated in a wonderful spinach and okra sauce.

Somali meals are served with a banana. Maram explains that you chop it up and eat a piece of banana with each bite of rice, which adds some interesting texture to the meal. The traditional green chili hot sauce may be extremely spicy, but it also adds a complex lemon flavour to the rice.

Owner Kos Ahmed (above centre, with her family) quit her corporate accounting job a couple years ago to open the restaurant with her family. Previously she didn't have much contact with the Somali community, but today she has a strong connection. 

She hopes that people realize that a few bad people don't represent her community as a whole. "There are many good people," she says. "The Somalis I know are educated. They are engineers and pilots, they are brilliant people." Head to Dabagoye to see it for yourself. 

Dabagoye is located at 1274 Martin Grove Road, Toronto. Tel: 416 742 3653. Open seven days a week. Hours are Monday to Thursday 11am to 10pm; Friday and Saturday, 11 am to midnight; Sunday opens at 11 and closing time varies. This restaurant is halal. 

NOTE: During Ramadan (until Aug. 8, 2013) the restaurant opens at 5pm.

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    1. Love it!
      Thank you for putting it so succinctly!

    2. do they have any vegetarian options? i would love to try it!

    3. Yes, the couscous dish was vegetarian and it was excellent. There is also fish if you eat that, although it was a overcooked, Somali style. We had a very good vegetable soup but the broth is made from lamb, so make sure to ask about that sort of thing.

    4. And do they have take-out?

    5. I'm pretty sure they do some takeout and catering. You could call to confirm.

    6. thanks for the review, def. want to check this restaurant out

    7. Went there today on your recommendation. We loved it. Though you might double check the hours before you go. They did not open today (Sat) until 12:30.

    8. We are wondering if our Camel Kebabs are to Somali likings. Feel free to stop by our store and ask for a free sample taste and kindly give us a review on our twitter/berbicianfoods or facebook.com/berbician. Stop by our store at 5122 Dundas St. W, Etobicoke 416-743-5531