Ilyas Jama has created a new kind of fusion. In October 2011 he opened West Bank Diner in the old Kilimanjaro Cafe spot on Cedar Avenue, where you’ll meet a menu of classic American breakfast foods and bottomless mugs of Peace Coffee for just $1.50. But if you’re familiar with Somalian cuisine and you’ve got a vicious craving, Jama will cook up whatever you want.
As the home to the largest population of Somali people in the United States, Minnesota is by no means devoid of East African food. But West Bank Diner is a bright green sprout of difference in the heavily Somali-streaked Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. Instead of cooking specifically for his countrymen, Jama is reaching out to natives of his new home, and everyone in between.
The menu includes sandwiches, burgers and fries, popcorn shrimp, and a rogue Red Curry Chicken. But breakfast is served all day, and that’s what Jama and his wife (who also cooks and serves) focus on.
The oatmeal pancakes ($5) are nothing special and are served with sub-par syrup, but the (allegedly) Belgian Waffle ($6) has decent, crispy ridges and smooth vanilla flavor. It arrived a little cool, but I credit this discrepancy to the nine-top of jolly Carlson-type students that descended on the restaurant just before I placed my order. On both trips to the diner the dining room was nearly empty, so it’s likely that the restaurant hasn’t had the chance to test its chops on a packed house.
On the whole, West Bank Diner is best when it comes to proteins. Pork is absent from the menu because it’s not halal, but Jama hopes to include some sort of sausage in the future. We tried the Beef Hash ($8), a clean, hearty stew packed with an army of spices, led by a confident whiff of rosemary. Chunks of green peppers, hot potatoes, and onions populate a heap of juicy sautéed beef bits that is well worth the price tag. Two crowning poached eggs, so white and still steaming, give the plate a little flair and a mark of craftsmanship. Jama has cooked professionally for more than 20 years, at places like Three Squares and Cooper. He knows what he’s doing.
The Breakfast Burrito ($9) is ample and full of good, fresh ingredients, and the California Eggs Benedict ($9) is stacked high with tomato and addictive onion-spiked avocado. Best of all, both dishes are served with the holy grail of greaseless hash browns with just the right amount of exterior crunch.
As a colleague put it, West Bank Diner serves food that’s much “like something I’d make in my own kitchen.” It’s fresh, it’s real, it’s dependable. And considering Augsburg and the University of Minnesota are within spitting distance, the diner might be just what those newly minted college freshmen could use: well-executed homemade food that they totally understand.
In fact, the students are raving already. That nine-top of future CEOs? Before half of the group could glance at the menu, the others were making passionate recommendations. The young woman at the table behind me ordered seconds because, she says, “The flavors are so unexpected. And so affordable.” There’s no substitute for quality and simplicity… or for getting what you want, which is just how West Bank Diner will seduce you.
West Bank Diner
American breakfast and lunch fare
324 Cedar Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55454
OWNER / CHEF: Ilyas Jama
HOURS: Mon-Sun 9am-10pm (or later, depending on demand)
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No / No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Limited
ENTREE RANGE: $4-12