The Afro Deli feels like a cross between a Chipotle and a slightly upscale burger joint. It's brightly lit, with colorful menus displayed on large HD televisions. Uniformed workers tap your order into iPads and deliver your food on reusable plastic trays. On the strip of Washington Avenue that passes through the University of Minnesota's campus in Minneapolis, it fits right in between a Bruegger's Bagels and a generic pizza place.
The restaurant looks 100 percent American. But the food is distinctly Somali.
As we sit down in a corner booth to chat, owner Abdirahman Kahin brings me a cup of tea from his home country. It's milky and flavorful, a hot chai spiced with ginger and cinnamon. It's delicious even at the end of August, but I imagine it would go down even better during the bitterly cold Minnesota winter. Later, I try what Kahin tells me is one of the most popular items on the menu: sambusas, a sort of afro-pierogi, deep fried and filled with a mixture of beef, lamb, spinach, lentils, and cilantro. It's savory, but milder than I'd expected after trying the tea. "Minnesota spicy," Kahin says with a grin, a concession to the tastes of the Nordic population that is a majority in the state.
From the open quick-service kitchen comes the sweet sound of sizzling meat, as a line cook grills up some Somali steak sandwiches—think cheesesteaks without the Cheez Whiz, topped with diced tomatoes and fried onions, and served on focaccia bread instead of a hard roll. Focaccia is common in Somali dishes, Kahin tells me, appropriated from the Italians who colonized the region in the mid-1800s.
"People don't discriminate about food," he says. "They don't really care where the food came from, as long as it tastes good."
It's hard to argue with him. On this Tuesday near lunchtime, the Afro Deli is packed with college students and university employees, seemingly thrilled to be eating something other than a burger or a sub—to have a lunch that's possible because of America's willingness to accept strangers from foreign lands.
The Twin Cities are home to more than 25,000 Somali immigrants, the largest such community anywhere in the world outside of Africa. That so many Somalis, who hail from a place where the weather alternates between hot and dry and hot and wet, would end up in Minnesota seems a bit surprising. But decades of immigration to the area have established a community that welcomes newcomers.
In the early 1990s, the United States agreed to accept a flow of refugees from the Horn of Africa after Somalia's government collapsed amid a regional civil war that killed thousands and displaced millions more. Minneapolis took in the first wave, and more have followed in the 25 years since. In 2015, the most recent year for which complete data is available, over 8,800 Somali refugees were resettled in the United States, with more taking up residence in Minnesota than in any other state.
The largest group resides in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood—wedged between downtown Minneapolis, the University of Minnesota's main campus, and the winding Mississippi River—but there are pockets of Somalis scattered across the city, and growing numbers live in places such as St. Cloud and Mankato as well.
When Kahin arrived in Minnesota in 1997, he was 20 years old. He worked for a video production company and eventually ran his own video business, mostly filming weddings, while earning an MBA from nearby St. Thomas University. After that, he entered the restaurant industry. His route from Somalia to the Afro Deli is a combination of hard work and good fortune, but one wonders how many others like Kahin have been denied the chance—by the stroke of a bureaucrat's pen or by order of the White House—to follow that same narrow path.
The Afro Deli is still the exception—most Somali-owned businesses are geared toward serving the immigrant community itself. The main drag in Cedar-Riverside is a collection of halal markets, coffee shops, and small-scale service businesses owned by Somalis, with a primarily Somali clientele.
That's where Kahin got his start. The first iteration of his restaurant opened in 2010 along Cedar Avenue, but it soon proved to be a popular spot for students from the nearby university. So earlier this year, it moved to the new location in the heart of the campus. Another location recently opened in downtown St. Paul.
In the last five or six years, he says, local Somalis have been branching out. His café is part of "bridging the gap."
That has been a challenge for the Somali community in Minnesota, as it has been for nearly every immigrant community throughout American history. Minneapolis has one of the lowest crime rates among major American cities, but the incidence is relatively higher in Somali neighborhoods. At over 13 percent, unemployment in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood is twice what it is in the city as a whole.
And there are concerns about terrorism. Dahir Adan, a Somali who came to America on a refugee visa, stabbed 10 shoppers and employees at a St. Cloud mall in September 2016—likely motivated "by some sort of inspiration from radical Islamic groups," according to then–FBI Director James Comey. Earlier in the year, nine Somalis living in Minneapolis were arrested after planning to move to Syria and join ISIS. Three were convicted in federal court; the other six pleaded guilty. The FBI has launched a special task force with the intent of countering extremism in the Muslim community in the Twin Cities.
Immigrants and refugees don't arrive in America empty-handed, of course. They bring their religions, their holidays, and their politics. But they also bring their desire for a better life, for education and for jobs, or just for a chance to escape something worse. That America has for so long been a destination of choice for those fleeing despotism, war, famine, and economic misfortune is one of the nation's best qualities.
They also bring delicious food. Twin Cities residents now have one more choice on Washington Avenue beyond the Starbucks and the college bars. And if the Afro Deli's popularity is any indication, they're happier for it.
In the front window, a sign advertises that the restaurant has been named an "official vendor" of Super Bowl 52, which will be hosted at U.S. Bank Stadium, less than a mile away on the east side of downtown Minneapolis, next February. The designation doesn't actually mean much. From a pool of more than 1,000 businesses, some 400 were selected for the not-so-prestigious honor of advertising themselves as "official partners" of the big game. Still, there's symbolism in having the most quintessential American sporting event promoted in a Somali-owned business, and Kahin is proud to have been picked by the host committee.
If anything can bridge the cultural divide, the Afro Deli's warm pockets of meat and fried dough seem like a strong contender. "When the Italians and the Greek came to this country, their food was not really known," Kahin says. "Now, everybody enjoys pizza and baklava. Sambusas will be the next thing."
Photo Credit: Eric Boehm