Ilyas Jama has created a new kind of fusion. In October, he opened West Bank Diner in the old Kilimanjaro Cafe spot, where you'll find a menu of classic American breakfast foods and bottomless mugs of Peace Coffee for just $1.50. But if you're familiar with Somalian cuisine and you have a vicious craving, Jama will cook up whatever you want.
As the home to the nation's largest population of Somali people, Minnesota is by no means devoid of East African food. But West Bank Diner is a bright green sprout of difference in the heavily Somali-streaked Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. Instead of cooking specifically for his countrymen, Jama is reaching out to natives of his new home, as well.
The menu includes sandwiches, burgers and fries, popcorn shrimp and a rogue red curry chicken. But breakfast is served all day, and that's what Jama and his wife, Nasra Adan (who also cooks and serves), focus on.
The oatmeal pancakes ($5) are nothing special and are served with sub-par syrup, but the (allegedly) Belgian Waffle ($6) has decent, crispy ridges and smooth vanilla flavor. It arrived a little cool, but I credit this to the nine-top of jolly Carlson School of Management-type students who descended on the restaurant just before I placed my order. On both of our trips to the diner, the room was nearly empty at first, so it's likely the restaurant hasn't been tested with a packed house.
The diner is best when it comes to proteins. Pork is absent because it's not halal, but Jama hopes to include some sort of sausage in the future. We tried the beef hash ($8), a clean, hearty stew packed with an army of spices, led by a confident whiff of rosemary. Chunks of green peppers, hot potatoes and onions populate a heap of juicy, sautéed beef bits that is well worth the price tag. Two crowning poached eggs, so white and still steaming, give the plate a little flair and a mark of craftsmanship. Jama has cooked professionally for more than 20 years at places like Three Squares and Cooper. He knows what he's doing.
The breakfast burrito ($9) is ample and full of good, fresh ingredients, and the California eggs Benedict ($9) is stacked high with tomato and addictive, onion-spiked avocado. Best of all, both are served with the holy grail of greaseless hash browns with just the right amount of exterior crunch.
As a colleague put it, West Bank Diner serves food that's much "like something I'd make in my own kitchen." It's fresh, it's real, it's dependable. Considering Augsburg College and the University of Minnesota are within spitting distance, the diner might be just what newly minted freshmen could use: well-executed homemade food that they totally understand.
A volunteer staff of more than 40 area chefs will prepare a multi-course feast for We Can Ride Inc.'s annual Chefs' Brigade Dinner on March 4 at the Edinburgh Country Club in Brooklyn Park. We Can Ride is a nonprofit therapeutic horseback-riding and carriage-driving program that serves children and adults living with disabilities. Tickets are $125 and are available at www.wecanride.org/chefs.
- The Heavy Table team writes about food and drink in the Upper Midwest five days a week, twice a day, at www.heavytable.com.
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