"It's getting better," says Asmerom Berhe, sweeping his arm towards the neighborhood outside, "Before we were here, it was terrible."
We're sitting inside MLK Café, Berhe's joint, on an arid stretch of road in Temescal's back pocket. Berhe tells me his was the first restaurant in the neighborhood, and looking around, it seems true. Happily, the area is starting to breathe again, thanks in part to his café.
At first, you might think Café MLK is a sports bar, and sometimes it is. Three TVs play a mix of syndicated soaps, sports, and news from an Eritrean channel. There's a jukebox and a full bar, and a couple computers colonized by young folks.
"I want this place to be for everyone, not to do just African food. I wanted a place for the community to come," says Berhe.
And indeed, they do. Premium sports channels during soccer season are a big draw, but so is the food. Berhe is Eritrean, and while he's brought to the menu a few mainstays from home, much of the offerings are decidedly American. In fact, the breakfast menu is split neatly in two, offering East African breakfasts on one side, American on the other. And while I'm all for omelets, the Eritrean side steals the show. Most of the time, it's the kitcha fit-fit I'm here for.
It's a simple dish, but it's like nothing else you can get for breakfast. Essentially, kitcha fit-fit is a pile of torn-up bread, soaked in clarified butter, fried up with berbere sauce, and served with a scoop of glumpy homemade yogurt. The pile of ruddy, spiced bread bits have the same comfort value as the butter-soaked, salted spaetzle my mom used to make when I was a kid.
In short, the Eritrean menu is stacked with good things. The Shehan Foul -- fava bean cooked, spiced, and ground into a hearty, stew-like porridge -- and the frittata, are both richly fortifying. While the tuna and the sardine salad are rather straightforward, the injera fit-fit adds a sour punch to the school of tomato-soaked bread.
Even if you're looking for pizza, Berhe makes a great gluten-free potato pesto rendition. Having gluten-free options is part of Berhe's inclusivity principle, and another effort in creating a welcoming space. From the looks of it, it's definitely working. Just beware, on game nights it may be hard to get a foot in the door.