Beyond the Dollar Menu

Make like the sun and set in the West for your dinner.

Becky Lang

Every area of the University has its own eating rituals. For those in the dorms, it begins with knocking on the doors of your dining buddies, deciding whether to get your card swiped or to simply make a dash for it, and finally, waiting in long lines of tray-bumpin’ neighbors. Those in Dinkytown may be familiar with the late night jaunt past the line slowly drooling out of Mesa Pizza, usually spotting the drunk smoking version of that one kid from math class. Hungry yet? As an ex-Comstock resident long since migrated to Dinkytown, I am most familiar with the way in which the first slur of a curbside, beer-fueled brawl can get one’s stomach churning for McDonald’s late night dollar menu.

But I must humbly admit that Cedar-Riverside dining holds many rituals which I have not yet witnessed. After investigating the restaurants for journalistic purposes, I have yet to claim myself as an expert on a zone where English is usually the second language and the maestros behind the kitchen doors hold the secrets of cuisine that scope a far broader geographical range than this ex-hippie haven has ever seen.

I set out on my journey down Cedar Avenue with my gyro-jonesin’ boyfriend. Passing the doorway of the Red Sea Restaurant, I started to notice less and less women dotting the streets. I also noticed that something about my boyfriend’s sideways winter hat and pack of cigarettes made him a prime target for loiterers. A young man with farm-fresh blond hair and a ragged gray sweater told us that he was a traveling poet, and offered to tell us a poem if we would give him some money. “I’m getting a little bit hungry,” he said, pointing to his stomach as if he expected us to see that it was especially concave. Despite our curiosity, we had just spent our last three dollars on coffee at Hard Times Café, and were left only with plastic currency. We trudged on through a dense group of loiterers who smelled of a rum-tinged afternoon cap. They caught my boyfriend in a circle of dollar-asking, but after realizing that he was with his girlfriend, decided to “let him go” out of some slanted code of manhood.

In an area laden with security cameras and cop cars, West Bank adds many hidden nuances to the ritual of acquiring some grub. There may be more to worry about than running into your anthropology T.A., but I must admit, the food offers more majesty than the spicy chipotle sauce of a snack wrap. The best advice I can give is to tread carefully but eat boldly.

Mediterranean Deli

This gyro joint has obviously seen its share of rough times, gauging by the height marker drawn shakily on the door frame.

Behind the counter, Obit Mvura seems all too wary of the crime that is increasingly too bold to wait for nighttime.

“Last week some guy cut my boss’s brother on his neck,” he tells me. “He had told a group of loiterers to move on because they were scaring away business. There were like eight guys, and we don’t know who cut him.”

They sound to me suspiciously like the group of chivalrous cigarette-lovers that we had just passed, a realization which does not get my appetite roaring for fried food.

“Many restaurants around here have formed an association to help fight crime,” Mvura explains. Mediterranean Deli’s owner, Mohamed Ali, is a board member of the West Bank Community Coalition, which petitions for security cameras and city aid.

Perilous or not, the lure of good food fast manages to attract many University students who wander the streets after a few drinks at the Triple Rock or a neighboring pub.

The menu has staple Mediterranean foods – gooey, syrup-sweet baklava, stuffed grape leaves, falafel – and suggests the East African culinary influence of its Kenyan owner. Waddi Tibs and Punza Rice add sautéed meat and fiery Berbere sauce to the margins of the deli’s value meals.

“Ali just wanted to try to fit all kinds of cultures all in one,” Mvura explains.

Unfortunately for Mvura, cuisine from his native Zimbabwe has not been included. He prefers to “go back to his roots” for a meal, going to restaurants that cook with Sadza, a staple grain made with cornmeal.

“We do not eat spicy food at all in Zimbabwe,” he explains, “American food isn’t spicy, but it’s not healthy either.”

Those of meager appetites and preferences for only Dino’s Gyros should beware; the gyros are spicy, rich and plentiful. Before even folding the soft pita bread into a gordita-like entity that can be picked up by hand, one must eat a few ounces of shredded lamb and clear away a handful of plump seasoned fries. The effort is rewarded with fresh cubed tomatoes and pools of tzatziki sauce, a yogurt-based sour cream injected with the freshness of cucumbers and the zing of dill and garlic.

The people at the wobbly tables tend to be both local and conversational, and the lack of a bar does not prevent them from bringing their own flasks. The interior is a haven in its own way, adorned with a line of dormant gold hookahs in front of the cash register, and vintage ads for meat-packed meals. A humming soda cooler holds cans of Coke products and a quarter candy machine is about to be empty of its Peanut M&Ms.

It would be easy to overlook this small deli, but the neon signs on its windows do well at upholding their promise of fast, napkin-requiring nourishment.

Kilimanjaro Café

Painted the color of seashells, the café is a purple and orange den of African flavors willing to be tweaked for the comfort of the ketchup-accustomed American tongue.

Manager Ed Ryan explains that most of the dishes are inspired by the customs of cooks from Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Most East African cuisine is eaten with injera bread, a long flat dough that is usually piled with food and rolled up to be easily eaten with the hands.

I tried the fule, an Egyptian appetizer made of jalapeño peppers, fava beans and tomatoes. It was served with a baguette. When combined with the dip it created a warm, spicy flavor, thick with oil.

Ryan prefers dishes made with lamb. Sounding oddly like a cast-member of “Leave it to Beaver,” he explains, “I like my green beans. I like my peanuts.” He puts his own spin on being a meat and potatoes guy.

Just up the road from the Mediterranean Deli, Kilimanjaro Café reportedly suffers far less crime.

“We have security,” Ryan points out, adding, “our crowd is a much older crowd and they stay out of trouble.”

A loyalist to the café, he insists that he doesn’t eat anywhere else in the West Bank area. He explains simply, “I like my restaurant better.”

Town Hall Restaurant & Brewery

“Our burgers are awesome,” explains Andy Benkovic, an employee I find sitting at the bar at 3 p.m. He’s off the clock, but has decided to stop by work to grab a late lunch. He finds a larger-than-life laminated prototype of their new menu and points out his favorites.

Wendy’s may be proud of sticking pepper jack cheese on a burger, but Town Hall takes things even further by putting nacho cheese and even feta cheese on those beef patties. Their fries also have a twist; they can now be made with sweet potatoes.

A mix of the greasy with the fancy-schmancy is one thing that this restaurant expertly offers up. I find myself especially intrigued by the flavor potential embedded in the buffalo chicken alfredo penne.

As the youngest in a family of graduates from the University, I was practically ordered by my sister and her brew-loving husband to cover Town Hall. Branching beyond Minnesota’s pride bottle – Grain Belt anyone? – Benkovik believes that their resident brewer’s concoctions are “way better.” His favorite is the Masala Mama India Pale Ale. After waxing poetic about his days as a bartender, he reveals a dangerous expertise.

“I used to light shots of 151 on fire at my old job, but we don’t do that here,” he explains.

Mostly populated by theatre crowds and university students, Town Hall isn’t exactly a raucous Coyote Ugly dance bar. But considering that it’s situated in the middle of the increasingly corporate Seven Corners area, it must be due some props just for holding its ground 10 years.

Jewel of India

Thick spicy tea with clouds of cream and icy mango smoothies: not a bad start for what is usually a long meal that could send one into hibernation.

For a main course, I recommend the tandoori chicken. It looks as red as a bushel of chilies, but has the gentle flavoring of the lemon, yogurt and ginger that it is roasted in.

Manager Rimpy Singh prefers the chicken tikka masala, which he explains is “boneless chicken marinated in tomato, onion and butter sauce.”

Piles of basmati rice, several selections of thin, crispy bread and desserts like gulab jamun, a sort of donut drenched in milk and honey, are good enough to make anyone forget about – what’s it called – oh yeah, UDS.

Jewel of India has been around for 13 years, attracting college students away from the lure of Chipotle and Noodles and Company across the street.

The restaurant is only open for a lunch buffet and a 5-9 dinner, and the quiet crowd by no means makes a mess hall. But the dishes are packing heat, floating in gooey, creamy sauce, and colorful in a way that is strangely vital for food that’s been smoked, cooked and boiled. Although there is usually a bored waiter hovering around the soda fountain or leaning on the cash register, there must be some serious heat in the kitchen.