Nearly every Ethiopian or Eritrean meal I've eaten has looked like this: an injera-lined platter dotted, like a painter's palette, with colorful piles of stewed or sautéed vegetables and meats. The spread is accompanied by more injera — a sour, spongy flatbread — that comes rolled up like little hand towels that you tear apart and use to scoop up your food.
At North Oakland Eritrean-American restaurant MLK Cafe, you can order a meal just like the one described above, but you can also order pizza or spicy chicken wings or a cheeseburger with fries. And yes, that's a good thing.
The approach might seem like the kind of pandering to the Western palate that food purists (and critics) deplore — except that both sides of the menu are, well, pretty tasty. It's a place that appeals to diners who revel in cobbled-together meals and unlikely food juxtapositions, and it also satisfies those who're in the mood for a plate of kitfo (aka Ethiopian beef tartare) but are saddled with a picky or unadventurous dining companion.
According to chef-owner Asmerom Ghebremicael, it isn't unusual for restaurants in his native Eritrea to serve Western dishes and African dishes side by side. And when he opened MLK Cafe two years ago, he wanted to distinguish the restaurant from all the other Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants in the East Bay.
Well, none of those restaurants were making pizza — or if they are, they probably weren't making their dough and sauce from scratch, as he does. Ghebremicael told me there are tons of Italian restaurants in Eritrea, the result of Italian colonization (otherwise, he said, there's not much difference between Eritrean and Ethiopian cuisines). So serving pasta and pizza was a natural fit.
His pizzas are available in thin- or thick-crust versions and a whopping five different sizes, the smallest of which are surprisingly large personal pies that'll only set you back $4 or $5. I dug the potato and pesto pizza, which had a pleasant and slightly chewy crust — nothing to geek out about — but fantastic toppings: super-garlicky pesto and taters sliced thin enough to crisp up like homemade potato chips. Did I mention it was only four dollars? Frozen pizza usually costs more.
Ghebremicael also makes gluten-free dough from teff flour — the same stuff used to make injera.
The menu's Italian influence may or may not be influence in a beef-and-egg sandwich called a lapizma, apparently an Eritrean standard: "Lapizma sounds Italian, right?" Ghebremicael mused. No matter, this was like a cross between a breakfast sandwich, a gyro, and a cheese steak, with thin-sliced steak (think Steak-umms), tomatoes, raw onions, ketchup, mayo, and a fried egg: a simple, satisfying lunch.
But perhaps the most interesting meal to eat at the MLK Cafe is breakfast. True to form, the usual American breakfast items like pancakes and bacon are available, but we found the Eritrean breakfast specialties too intriguing to pass up.
The kitcha fit-fit with clarified butter is a traditional East African breakfast dish made with homemade dough (kitcha) that's pan-baked, torn to pieces, and then mixed with the butter and a fiery berbere spice blend. You end up with a big bowl of well-browned, spicy, chewy balls of dough — a dish that combines the pleasures of eating fried chicken batter with the toothsomeness of hand-pulled noodles. The crowning touch is the bowl of slightly curdy homemade yogurt that you mix into the fit-fit — a nice cooling counterpoint.
And who knew that Eritreans are up there with the French as masters of the scrambled egg? A dish listed as a "frittata" wasn't what Americans think of as a frittata at all, but rather an Eritrean-style scramble. The ingredients — diced tomatoes, bell peppers, and onions — weren't so different from those in a Western omelet, but the results were infinitely lighter, juicier, and more savory. Our server taught us to eat eggs the way East Africans do, scooping them up with hunks of still-warm French bread.
Meanwhile, the more typical traditional Ethiopian dishes were pretty good, too. The chicken kelwa with spinach was something like a spicy chicken stir-fry — flavor-packed, though a bit dry. In the vegetarian sampler, the weak link was the potato-and-carrot alicha, which, served barely lukewarm, felt more like a potato salad than a stew. The standouts were the tender stewed spinach, which had that earthy quality that only African cooking techniques seem to coax out of those humble greens, and the smoky, sneaky-hot awaze chile paste.
After three enjoyable meals, I concluded what the restaurant could use most of all is a healthy dose of self-promotion. As solidly populist a name as "MLK Cafe" is, you could drive past it a dozen times without realizing that the place served African food — much less hard-to-find Eritrean breakfast dishes and gluten-free pizza. Viewed from the street, the restaurant could pass for any nondescript sports bar or cafe; it's noticeable only by virtue of being the nicest-looking building on a somewhat ramshackle block, around the corner from the MacArthur BART station.
Walk in on a busy evening, though, and you'll feel like you've been transported to a foreign city. Almost everyone is Ethiopian or Eritrean, and mostly male — young and old, jovial, slapping five, crowding into big leather booths, nursing beers, arguing about soccer (day or night, there was always a soccer match on), stepping outside for a smoke.
It's a place where I stuck out like a sore thumb, but I didn't feel unwelcome — just that I'd stumbled on a well-kept secret. In spite of the Americanized menu — or perhaps because of it —it's a place that feels authentically international.