Entrepreneurial immigrants bring the flavors of their native lands to restaurants in the Heartland.

By Alicia Underlee Nelson; Photographer: Justin Eiler
January 07, 2019

Between sips of sweet, milky chai, I meet a chatty Madina Cuisine regular, Mohamed Abdi. He teaches me some Somali before Madina Omar, the twinkly-eyed force of nature who runs the restaurant, brings my food: beef suqaar (fried meat, veggies and rice), sambusas (spiced ground beef fragrant inside dough pockets) and injera (spongy flatbread that doubles as an eating utensil). Mohamed translates.

"What's this?" I ask, pointing at a white sauce in a tiny dish.

"Ranch," he replies, laughing. We are in Fargo, after all.

North Dakota has a rich history of welcoming refugees. (In 2015, the state accepted more refugees per capita than any other U.S. state.) Many settle in North Dakota's largest city, Fargo, which already had a strong international draw thanks to nearby universities. Today, more than 8 percent of Fargo's residents are foreign-born. Over the last few years, a stable economy has made it easier for entrepreneurial immigrants to start businesses. In other words, new neighbors mean lots of new restaurants.

The Spice Grille
The Spice Grille

At Rugsan Cuisine, meat sizzles on the grill while office workers split leftovers from heaping platters of Somali chicken and rice. Just across the Red River in Fargo's sister city of Moorhead, Minnesota, Brian Fredrickson doesn't need a menu at The Spice Grille. Owner Akua Hutchison sends out jollof rice, curried goat in coconut milk and steaming peanut butter soup to introduce Brian's friends to the flavors of her native Ghana.

"Something that brings everyone together is food," Akua says. "It cuts across boundaries. So come in and eat."

Akua Hutchison, The Spice Grille
Akua Hutchison, The Spice Grille