West Bank deli builds on community

The Mediterranean Deli is in one of the most diverse areas in Minnesota.

Bryce Haugen

Nestled between a video shop and an abandoned liquor store, the Mediterranean Deli’s neon lights invite Cedar Avenue pedestrians to stop in.

On any given night, the five tables in the family-run restaurant, owned by Ethiopian immigrant Mohamed Ali, are filled with a melting pot of patrons.

The south Minneapolis Cedar-Riverside neighborhood is one of the most diverse in the state, with one of the largest East African populations in the nation. The community also includes Augsburg College and the University’s West Bank.

Each day – until 2 a.m. most days, except Fridays and Saturdays, when doors stay open until 3 a.m. – students, former refugees and others meet at the Mediterranean Deli.

They’re drawn by the “very good and fast service,” said Jemal Dube, a 23-year-old Ethiopian immigrant.

And, they come for the food.

“I don’t know anywhere else that has a better gyro,” said individualized studies senior Kara Delaney, who dodged torrential rain to appease her hunger after night class Wednesday.

Relocating to America

In ads the Mediterranean Deli tempts customers with the slogan “It’s love at first bite.” Its most popular items are the gyros, which cost between $4.99 and $5.99. Others order the vegetarian falafel for $3.99.

The restaurant also offers traditional East African cuisine, including ittoo dumaa, a beef stew cooked in sauce and spices.

At the counter Wednesday night, the owner’s 20-year-old cousin, Abdinasir Ali, prepared each order fresh.

Abdinasir Ali, who came to West Bank five years ago from Somalia, said the Philly-style steak is his favorite dish at the deli. It’s funny, he said, that many East Africans like American food, while the American customers prefer the exotic choices.

Acclimating to America was difficult, Abdinasir Ali said, but now he likes it here.

“I tried to learn the language first,” he said. “Now I’m interested in learning more about the culture.”

Later that night Mohamed Ali relieved Abdinasir Ali, allowing him to rest for his criminal justice classes at Minneapolis Community and Technical College in the morning.

While he cooked, Mohamed Ali explained how he got his start in the restaurant business at the age of 17 in Kenya, serving food to refugees.

He said he fled to Kenya to escape Ethiopian military conscription, which, to him, most likely meant a bloody death.

“And if you ran away (from the army), they put your whole family in jail,” he said.

From a young age, Mohamed Ali said, he wanted to run a business. Two years ago, he got the chance, purchasing the then-19-year-old Mediterranean Deli from its owner.

“I love to do business,” he said. “That’s my opening. That’s my calling. That’s my dream.”

Mohamed Ali became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1999.

“I’m proud to be an American,” he said.

When he has enough money, he said, he plans to expand – possibly to St. Paul, where he lives.

Safety concerns

Inside the restaurant, a pop fridge, which is locked, demonstrates the crime concerns in the neighborhood.

In August there were 41 robberies, four rapes, but no homicides in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, according to the Minneapolis Police Department.

Somali immigrant Mohamed Hamed escaped from Africa in the late ’90s and can be found in the restaurant as often as six times a week. He said University students’ fears about visiting the community are based more on perception than on reality.

“We can only measure safety by police department information, not by individual opinions,” said Hamed, a 23-year-old MCTC student.

However, he said, some immigrants try to act macho to fit in with American life.

“They’re gangbanging like they’re hard-core,” he said. “But in Africa, there’s no hard core. AK-47 is hardcore.”

On Wednesday night, Greek, religious studies and philosophy senior Alex Kocar said he’s never felt unsafe in the neighborhood.

But later that night, Eden Zemedhim, 44, who was visiting from Seattle, said she’s experienced West Bank crime firsthand. She said her purse was stolen outside a nearby bar.

“The problem is on the street, not with business,” she said.

Lisa Hammer, owner of Palmer’s Bar, came from across the street to the restaurant Tuesday night to pick up a gyro and to encourage Mohamed Ali to attend a neighborhood safety meeting Wednesday.

“Everybody has to work together or we can’t survive,” Hammer told the owner.

Mohamed Ali attended the meeting. He said the neighborhood association discussed installing cameras on each block to improve safety.

Mixing of cultures

To attract University eaters who might sidestep the neighborhood, the Mediterranean Deli will soon offer a two-for-one deal on its large gyros, Mohamed Ali said.

Besides the deal, students can also get a firsthand look at a different culture, Hamed said.

Though East African music plays in the restaurant year-round, during Ramadan -Islam’s holiest month, in which worshippers fast during daylight – visitors often hear verses of the Quran set to music.

During that month, East Africans scarcely come out during the day, but swarm the restaurant after dark.

Dressed in traditional Islamic prayer attire, known as a kanzu, Hussein Abdikadir visited the deli Tuesday night.

Abdikadir, 23, said Ramadan dates back “1,426 years” to the prophet Muhammad.

Hamed encouraged students to step out of their comfort zones.

“I would say try it. Take a shot. Come here with a group of students Ö and just observe,” he said.

Kocar, a community adviser at Sanford Hall, said it’s only appropriate for college students to take advantage of what the West Bank has to offer.

“That’s something we’re supposed to learn at college – difference and tolerance,” he said.

His friend fellow community adviser Adam Laine said he also appreciates the diversity.

But the anthropology senior went on to say the deli is “more of a hunger thing.”