First look: Afro Deli & Coffee

Over the last 20 years, Minnesota has welcomed the largest community of Somali-Americans in the country. Many of these immigrant families have located near the West Bank of the U of M campus. As a result, the area has seen its share of African-inspired eateries. But until now, very few of them have seemed as accessible or inviting as the new Afro Coffee Deli at the corner of Fifth Street and Riverside. The Hot Dish stopped in this week to check it out.

The restaurant is a very small, brightly colored storefront boasting roughly eight seats at the window-front counter and three two-top tables. Needless to say, the location is less than ideal for dining groups, though it works just fine for a couple of people looking to grab a quick bite. Of course, takeout is available, and especially attractive option for nearby university students.

We began our meal with a large cup of the Somali chai tea, an incredibly sweet and aromatically spiced drink that could be described as a cross between Russian tea and regular chai. Other drink options include Ethiopian coffee and all of the other standard coffee shop fare: latte, mocha, cappuccino, etc.

We started with sambusas, crispy little pastries stuffed with a choice of beef or veggies. We sampled both and found the veggie sambusas to carry more flavor, bursting with a spiced lentil mixture. The beef version, on the other hand, was deemed a little too greasy and somewhat bland. Each order is served with a side of tomato salsa and a must-have green salsa made of jalapenos and cilantro that is deliciously piquant and fresh-tasting.

Falafel sandwich

The sandwiches we sampled included the falafel, which was rather disappointing compared to some of the other dishes. It was not a bad falafel but doesn't compete with some of the better local Middle Eastern restaurants, or even with other menu offerings at Afro Deli.

Those better offerings include the Somali Steak Sandwich--one of the best steak sandwiches in town. The menu said the sandwich was served on focaccia, but it looks more like ciabatta. And the bread is fresh--firm and chewy on the outside, soft and porous inside. The savory aioli-style mayonnaise complements the thin slices of spiced steak and veggies perfectly.

Afro Deli & Coffee also offers entrees, served over bowls of visually pleasing yellow and orange basmati rice. The Chicken Fantastic was a surprise, though a not entirely pleasant one. The dish seems out of place on the menu and might be more at home on an Italian menu. Chunks of white-meat chicken are served with peppers, onions, zucchini, and carrots and sprinkled with parmesan. A chicken suqqar/curry dish would be more interesting and in tune with the rest of the menu.

Conversely, the AfroSteak dinner was far from disappointing. This wonderfully spiced beef dish serves as an African version of pepper steak. At $4.95 a bowl ($7.95 for a large), this dish would make an excellent quick lunch.

A glass display case at the register displays an array of delectable-looking sweet treats, from tiramisu and baklava to Oreo mousse and pastel de tres leches.

Afro Deli & Coffee is worth a try. But we recommend sticking with the more "African" menu choices--the dishes that truly stood out.

Afro Deli & Coffee 1939 Fifth Street South 612.871.5555 Afro Deli website

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