3 East African kitchens opening up a world of flavor in the Twin Cities

Vegetarian sampler platter at Ghebre’s

Vegetarian sampler platter at Ghebre’s Tony Nelson

One of the obvious benefits of being a hub for immigrants from all over the world? Better food. In 2016, the lucky Minnesotan can eat cuisines that only a short generation ago she would have needed several plane tickets to get.

East African cooking is influenced by the nearby Middle Eastern cooking we know and love (gyros and falafel), Italian (a result of Somalia’s occupation by that country), and the fragrant injera and comforting stews of Ethiopia.

How fortunate we are, Twin Cities. Three new restaurants bring us a taste of each.

Alimama’s Sambusa Land
700 E. Seventh St., St. Paul

If your school’s cafeteria offers little more than the sickly-sweet aroma of Subway’s “fresh” baked bread, then it might be time for a transfer. Metropolitan State University seems to have gotten the memo that studying requires brain food — preferably the flavorful kind. The St. Paul school has made Alimama’s the main culinary offering at its student center.

If you’re not willing to go back to school regardless of how good the food may be, Alimama’s has a food truck by the same name. Watch for them in downtown Minneapolis at lunch hour.

Beef tibs at Ghebre’s

Beef tibs at Ghebre’s Tony Nelson

Mohamed Omer grew up and lived all over East Africa and the Middle East, and before moving to the United States he worked as an importer and exporter. “Our food isn’t like anyone else’s,” he says, “because it’s from here and there and from everywhere.”

It’s true. You’ll find old Middle Eastern favorites like lamb and chicken gyros and falafel wrapped up traditionally in a pita. But Alimama’s will also put their lamb burgers and falafel on a bun for a more American approach, a growing trend in African restaurant service, including the wildly popular Afro Deli in downtown St. Paul.

At Alimama’s, we’re in it for the sambusas. In a town exploding with these triangular savory pastries, this may be our favorite permutation yet. Here, the dough is pillowy and multilayered, tender as the finest pie crust. Inside, your choice of ground beef or lamb, seasoned with that intoxicating yet increasingly familiar blend of coriander-cumin-cardamom. If you’re a fan of the pasty, you’ll love these.

With our ever-growing East African populations, could the sambusa become a Minnesota tradition, recognizable as the Jucy Lucy? We hope so. If you’re unsure what to bring to your next potluck, order a pan of these from Alimama’s and watch as your dance card fills up.

Their version of chicken curry is also not to be missed. Rich and deeply complex, it tells the tale of old recipes and long hours fussing over the pot. No ordinary restaurant dish, this is the sort of thing that could take the place of chicken soup or pho in its power to treat bad colds and ornery dispositions.

Whatever else you do, do not bypass the house-made hot sauce, easy to overlook at the condiment bar with all the lesser national brands. Theirs is a bewitching commingling of yogurt, tomato, jalapenos, garlic, and culinary know-how.

Omer tells us he’s eyeing a Minneapolis storefront, and by next summer he hopes to up his food-truck fleet to at least three. Spreading the gospel of the sambusa, one truck at a time.

Ghebre’s Restaurant
512 Snelling Ave., St. Paul

Imagine if a new fried-chicken outfit came to town and opened up smack dab across the street from Revival, the local reigning fried-chicken champ. Would there be outrage? Disgust? Gossip? Most certainly there would be gossip.

That’s essentially the equivalent of what happened in the local Ethiopian dining world when Ghebre’s opened up directly across the street from Fasika, the longtime biggest name in local Ethiopian dining. But, as far as we can tell, there’s been no gossip. Only delight. There are enough customers to go around, and Ghebre’s has come along to fulfill that need.

If it’s drama you’re after, consider ordering a combo platter, where two enormous pancakes of injera arrive on a platter that your tabletop will barely accommodate. Upon that is more injera, rolled up like ribbons on a spindle, plus a dizzying array of dals, wots, and curries.

This painter’s palette of flavor and color holds bright and cooling curry cabbage and potatoes, multiple lentil dishes including the tomato- and garlic-heavy misir, as well as collards mixed with spinach, and more, more, more.

The beef tibs, with ginger, garlic, and berebere (a spice blend that includes chile, basil, fenugreek, and multiple others), is as expertly done as we’ve had it anywhere. The intense depth of it is like soul food embodied.

Vegans take note: Much of Ghebre’s cooking can be made without the traditional butter that makes Ethiopian cooking so richly decadent. Just ask, and they’ll happily accommodate.

Other things we love: a beer and wine license, a reasonably attractive (though still barebones by Western standards) dining room, and a midnight closing time for those pesky late-night tibs cravings. It happens.

4757 Hiawatha Ave., Minneapolis

For unassailable proof of the changing face of Minnesota dining, look to this one-time Bridgeman’s on Hiawatha. The former scoop shop is now overlaid with safari stripe wallpaper and the sights and smells of exhilarating Somali homestyle cooking. Owner Jama Abdikani seems to do it all, including cook and serve, and that service is the epitome of low-key comfort, complete with red Solo cups and glass water pitchers.

But it’s the cooking that you’ve come for and the cooking that you’ll return for. Somali food can be some of the most familiar African cuisine to the American palate thanks to its Italian influence. (Somalia spent hundreds of years under Italian occupation.)

You’ll find noodles tossed in African-spiced tomato sauce for an optional side dish, along with fragrant curried rice. You’d be wise to order the curry goat, a protein choice that doesn’t get enough love around here. It’s profoundly umami-rich like beef, and benefits from long braising times, which render it soul-satisfying as a hot bubble bath. Just sink right in.

Sambusas here are also a must-have starter. The little thimbleful of green chutney is a badass, nose-tingling face-kick of green chile, lemon, and garlic, and it simply won’t do to have these sambusas without it.

Come to think of it, it won’t do to cruise down Hiawatha without stopping off for a little Somali food fix. Sambusas have supplanted banana splits, and that’s perfectly fine by us.