African spices are distinctive for their earthy depth, their sometimes armpit levels of funk, and their imposing heat. Ethiopian berbere with its chile, garlic, ginger, and fenugreek; Somali ones with cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon — if it all seems a bit exotic, that's because it is. Egyptians used these things for embalming. They're used in magic, medicine, and ritual all over the world. People were sold into slavery in exchange for them. This is heady stuff. And at Afro Deli you can have heaps for around seven dollars.
Owner Abdirahman Kahin is Somali by blood but grew up in Djibouti (bordered by Ethiopia), and he considers himself a Minnesotan through and through. When asked how long he has lived in Minnesota, he answers simply: "I am a Minnesotan."
And if you want to know what Minnesota looks like — truly looks like — post up at the West Bank Afro Deli at lunch hour. Here, hungry college boys in weather-inappropriate flip flops meet Korean exchange students meet women in colorful hijab meet Somali families meet Latino guys asking to double up on their hot sauce. They all stand in wait, in the spice-rich air at this tiny fast-casual cafe, where Kahin has taken the most American of all food-service styles — fast and cheap — and repackaged African food to suit the Midwest.
"I know what people want," he says, most matter-of-factly, and judging by the length of the lines, there's no arguing.
Business is so good (Afro Deli Minneapolis has been open five years) that he's just opened a second location in downtown St. Paul, in the little cobblestone plaza off West Seventh Place that always feels like there should be a bustling Main Street vibe to it, only it instead sits so empty you await drifting tumbleweeds. No more. Lines are out the door here, too, with the mayor, with politicos from the Capitol, with Ecolab execs, ties flapping in the wind.
They come for the headiness of the stews, the abundance of spice (spice-o-phobes, this place is not for you), the equally abundant portion sizes, and the minuscule prices. We can see why they line up out the door on campus: A portion of anything costs around seven dollars and hefts so massively in a to-go bag you're liable to get an elbow injury if you're not careful.
It's a tight pan-African menu with old favorites, new favorites, and things you've not had elsewhere. If you're a fan of those corner gyro joints, you'll like it here for the falafel, the hummus, the Greek salads, and the gyros; if you're an average Joe you can have wings and even a burger. That's how inclusive this place is: They're not going to keep you from your burger. But if it's a burger you want you're in the wrong place. Why do that when you can have a Somali steak sandwich, a sambusa, or something called Chicken Fantastic?
The first is sliced thin steak blanketed with melted Swiss and served on focaccia from the New French Bakery. Do you like a good Philly cheese? You probably don't really know because there aren't any good Phillies around here. Except this one. Make it even better with a swipe of addictive, bright green, jalapeño-cilantro-onion sauce. "That's the killer," says Kahin. In a good way, of course.
Such is the Afro Deli magic: Take things that are already good, and make them strangely, beautifully, delightfully better by rethinking them, like how Gaudi rethought architecture. Why not build a church in the likeness of melting wedding cake? Why not combine Ethiopian spices and Somali spices and inspiration from Korean BBQ sauce and pour it over saffron rice for the utterly divine Afro Asian Chicken Suqqar?
Or take their signature dish, Chicken Fantastic, a hybrid Italian preparation — Somalia was once a colony of Italy — that brings bell peppers, onions, carrots, zucchini, and garlic together in a light Parmesan cream sauce and instead of pairing it with pasta, layers it all over precisely cooked rice tossed with the fragrant headiness of saffron threads.
They've got two people who do nothing but make sambusas, all day every day, by the hundreds. They're big — one is a snack, three is a meal — pockets of delicate fried dough with richly seasoned beef, chicken, or veggies. Kahin thinks of these as a Minnesota dish, a social unifier. That's how good they are and that's how serious he is about bringing people together through food, and if you don't believe him just bring a big tray of these to your next potluck and see what happens.
There's a separate kitchen where three women crank out chapati bread to wrap around their most excellent chapati burritos. "They are selling like crazy," says Kahin. Why? "I was inspired by Chipotle." Chipotle only wishes it were this great: Exquisite handmade chapati binds together saffron rice, enormous hunks of heavily spiced beef, ranch sauce (if you can believe it), and enough veggies to get your daily vitamin quota. Much more than the sum of its parts, this thing is the Rocky Balboa of burritos. It's the champ.
Or try the beef keke, where African "noodle" is spaghetti gone on safari. A familiar blend of red sauce, bell pepper, onion, and garlic takes a left turn with lime, cilantro, and a big shot of complex spices. The "noodles" are chapati bread cut into fat, pappardelle-like strips. The spirit is that of Mexican chilaquiles — a way to use up something from yesterday, and in the process, again, greatness and abundance emerges.
Amazingly, this food does not suffer from any duplication doldrums — this does not taste like that, and that is altogether different from this. The distinctiveness of every single dish is eye-opening. These are genius tinkerers, as well as classic craftsmen.
We have big African communities here, especially the Somali community. "We are easy to recognize, but still there is a [cultural] gap," says Kahin. "We are trying to close that gap. Food is how we present ourselves. This is a social venture."
It's a venture, it's an adventure, it's a trip. It's familiar and it's not. Get to know yourself a little better by stopping by. It feels and tastes fantastic.
Afro Deli 1939 S 5th St, Minneapolis 612-871-5555 afrodeli.com
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