Food & Drink » Restaurant Review

Be a Phool for Love at Alem's Coffee in Oakland

Across from the Temescal DMV, this spot sets hearts and tongues aflame with spicy Eritrean breakfast dishes.

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For many Oaklanders, the city's wealth of Ethiopian and Eritrean food is a point of civic pride. There is, after all, no shortage of modest neighborhood restaurants where you can sit down to an injera-based feast fit for a king. But Oakland is also home to an even more workaday class of East African food business: the Ethiopian/Eritrean coffee shop.

Many of these are indistinguishable from any other kind of coffee shop, apart from the provenance of the coffee beans and, oftentimes, the availability of uncommonly good breakfast sandwiches. (The secret, I've been told, is clarified butter.) Others are more overtly East African in their offerings, with cobbled-together menus that might list doro wot and kik alicha alongside more Americanized items such as pizza, pancakes, and hot dogs. (In that sense, they remind me of the old-school Chinese-American diners where chow mein and cheeseburgers might share a plate.)

At Alem's Coffee, the Eritrean-run breakfast-and-lunch spot that sits directly across the street from the Temescal branch of the Department of Motor Vehicles, you'll find this kind of hybridized menu. I'd been eying Alem's for years during occasional trips to the farmers' market held every Sunday in the DMV parking lot. A recent driver's license mishap (sorry if I'm over-sharing) was as good an excuse as any to finally cross Claremont Avenue.

My reward? The first thing I tried — a traditional Eritrean fava bean dip known as shihan phool — was probably the one breakfast dish I enjoyed the most in 2016.

Some background: In 2000, when namesake Alem Negash and his wife, Nigisty Eyasu, bought the place, it had been a regular American coffee shop called Diego's Coffee. Negash explained that he was a truck driver by trade and had no prior food industry experience, so it made sense to keep things simple. For its first year or two, Alem's Coffee stuck to coffee-shop basics — good Ethiopian coffee, but nothing more complicated than hot dogs and a small selection of sandwiches.

Business wasn't particularly good, though. And so, in an effort to turn things around, Negash and Eyasu decided to introduce a handful of traditional Eritrean dishes that might appeal to the local East African community. The aforementioned shihan phool was the first addition and remains, by far, the restaurant's bestselling item. But over the years, the menu has slowly expanded and now includes maybe eight or ten Ethiopian/Eritrean breakfast and lunch staples in addition to a neighborhood coffee shop's usual array of bagels, muffins, and bagged chips.

For instance, Alem's serves a good version of kitcha fitfit, which has been one of my favorite East African breakfast dishes ever since I was introduced to it a couple years ago at the Longfellow neighborhood's MLK Cafe. The dish features a chewy, unleavened, teff-based dough that's seared in a hot pan until it's cooked through. It's then torn into spaetzle-like pieces, and tossed with berbere (Ethiopian/Eritrean dried chili powder) and spiced clarified butter. Compared to the version at MLK Cafe, the kitcha fitfit at Alem's is saucier, less crispy, and, if you request it that way, quite a bit spicier. Served with a little tub of yogurt, it makes for a fiery and delicious morning-carb alternative to your run-of-the-mill toast.

Alem's Coffee also serves Eritrean-style frittata — not really a "frittata" in the Italian or American sense of the word, but instead a very light egg scramble with diced onion, tomato, and green bell pepper. The main thing is that it comes, like many dishes at Alem's Coffee do, with two of the crusty, oblong French rolls that Eritreans and Ethiopians favor. These days, I almost never see these outside the context of an East African restaurant, but they are a delight — crunchy on the outside and perfectly soft and warm on the inside. You eat the dish with your hands, breaking off hunks of bread to scoop everything up, and to sop up all the eggy juices.

As enjoyable as most everything on the menu was, I'd be hard-pressed to ever dine at Alem's Coffee and not order the shihan phool. This is the Eritrean version of a dish, sometimes spelled  foul or ful depending on the country of origin, that you'll find throughout the Middle East and on either side of the Red Sea — in Egypt, Yemen, Palestine, and beyond. The base of the dish is dried fava beans that are slowly simmered and then crushed or puréed into a hummus-like dip, though the spices, accompaniments, and desired texture vary from country to country. Accordingly, an East Bay ful crawl might include Pyramids Restaurant's zesty, vinegar-spiked version, which is specific to the Egyptian city of Alexandria, and the tomato-intensive Yemenese version at Saha in Berkeley. (The Chronicle's Jonathan Kauffman recently did a nice round-up of all the different incarnations available in Oakland alone.)

What sets Eritrean shihan phool at Alem's apart is the abundance of fresh toppings, which are arranged on the bowl like little smears of color in an abstract painting — the green of the finely chopped jalapeño, the red of the tomato, and the white of the raw onion and the crumbled feta cheese. If you ask for it spicy, the phool comes dusted with berbere, which gives the dish a pleasant, lingering heat. I love how garlicky and slick with olive oil the dip was, and how no two bites were exactly the same. It was the perfect thing to mop up with more of those excellent French rolls at 8 a.m. — or anytime, really.

The phool's deliciousness meant I had to force myself to explore the rest of the Alem's Coffee menu, which included at least one lunch dish — the fata — that was entirely new to me. This was a kind of Eritrean bread salad, basically: big hunks of crunchy, chewy French bread tossed in a fiery, tomato-based, berbere-tinged sauce known as silsi. You eat the fata with a spoon, ladling on dollops of yogurt, which serves as the perfect cooling counterpoint.

Like the best of the East Bay's East African coffee shops, Alem's Coffee is as notable for its community-oriented vibe as it is for its food. Eyasu now runs the coffee shop's day-to-day operations, and counter service is as brisk and efficient as it is warm.  The coffee, served very strong and hot, isn't the least bit fussy, and the cozy space bustles in a way that very few of today's self-serious third- or fourth-wave coffee shops do. At any time of day, you will find groups of young East African men with their eyes glued to the soccer game on the television, or friends catching up over a leisurely meal. On a warm day, the trellis-covered front patio is as pleasant a place to linger as there is in Temescal — preferably with a bowl of shihan phool in hand.


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