Despite the Twin Cities' large African populations, African cuisines here have been the final frontier to adopt the fast-casual model that America seems most comfortable with when getting acclimated to new cuisines. Somali and Ethiopian cuisines are particularly well suited to the format, with lots of rice, spicy stews, quick roasted meats, sambusas, and traditional breads.
Wonderful Afro Deli has been succeeding at this model for the past five years -- recently opening a second location -- with a cheerful pan-African menu that also includes some American favorites that we're unwilling to release our death grip on, like burgers and wings. They're doing an absolutely bang-up job, and if you haven't been, you're missing out on a serious local treasure. It seems African Paradise is attempting to follow suit on the model, but hasn't hit the mark just yet.
The space is bright, sunny, and welcoming, and there's even a nice little sidewalk patio -- if the weather ever cooperates they might even be able to use it. The menu zigzags all over the place from suqaar to ugali to Middle Eastern favorites like gyros, to burgers and even an "egg muffin" with American cheese. We've got no problem with this schizophrenia as long as the technique is solid, but restaurants that try to be all things for all people generally fail miserably in the effort to be overly inclusive.
Service seems flummoxed about what's available and what isn't, and that led to all types of confusion right at the outset. A nice touch: Each order comes with a complimentary bowl of vegetable soup and choice of beverage including mango lassi or lemon lime. Avoid the latter; it tasted like soap got substituted for sweetener. The soup was warming and inviting, like having miso before sushi.
Things took a serious dip with the Mediterranean Sampler, which promised roasted lamb and chicken, kofta, falafel, basmati, hummus, baba ghanouj, tabbouleh, and pita, and in fact arrived absent five of those items and instead was sort of a stir fry of dry gyro meat and a few stray cubes of chicken. It was one of those dining moments where you don't even know where to begin in terms of rectifying the situation.
Unfortunately, things only got worse with the shakshuka, a dish we were excited to find on the menu, traditionally the pinnacle of eggs for lunch/dinner in certain parts of the Middle East: soft-cooked eggs in a delectable and fragrant tomato sauce spiced with cumin, paprika, and cayenne. Instead what arrived was cup of mystery spinach and beans (which was also a curious a component of the Mediterranean plate) with some overcooked eggs and strangest of all, a ramekin of bottled ranch and some hot sauce.
We're happy to report that a beef sambusa was delectable, the finest point of the meal and devoured too quickly to snap a photo. The fiery hot sauce that accompanied it was equally great.
We are really rooting for these guys -- the Twin Cities needs more of this kind of thing, but the chicken cannot come before the egg. There is absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt, no professional cooking happening in this kitchen. In order to open a restaurant, there must be cooks. A concept alone cannot carry a place. We dearly hope they find some in the coming weeks.
2700 E. Lake St., Minneapolis 612-354-2551 https://www.facebook.com/africanparadiserestaurant
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