When asked if Mera Kitchen Collective was a restaurant in an interview with The News-Letter, founder Aisha Alfadhalah hesitated.
“I would consider it a community more than a restaurant,” Alfadhalah said. “We wanted to create a space that facilitates more connection, because when you think about food, it’s really a time of our day when we pause and sit around people.”
Whatever you choose to call it, Mera celebrated its official grand opening in a brick-and-mortar space on March 18 and 19. However, the team has been serving meals in Baltimore since 2016: first out of each other’s homes, then to the Waverly Farmers Market before reaching its current home near Penn Station.
According to a TEDx Talk from Alfadhalah in 2019, Mera began as a celebration of food’s ability to transcend cultural boundaries and create community. This is reflected in the diversity of the founders and chefs. Iman Alshehab cooked at the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus, Syria before resettling in Baltimore. Emilienne Zongo hails from Burkina Faso, while other chefs hail from Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras.
Upon visiting the grand opening with my roommates, I immediately got a sense of the community Alfadhalah was alluding to. The restaurant has a long, communal table where visitors are free to take a chair next to a stranger. In a decorated loft upstairs, diners are encouraged to linger over their drinks with colorful couches and an array of cookbooks. When I was first examining the display case of pastries, a woman came up and urged me with a smile to try the brownie, which is her favorite. For a moment, I wasn’t quite sure if she was a staff member or a customer.
While my friends and I struggled to decide from the diverse menu options, our table spread ultimately looked like a passport across the world. One friend ordered horchata to drink and a plantain avocado bowl inspired by the flavors of Burkina Faso. She noted that these were some of the best plantains she has managed to find in Baltimore, and the horchata reminded her of her home in California.
In a reversal of countries, another of my roommates ordered bissap (a hibiscus ginger drink) and carne asada tacos. The bissap was snappy with a strong hibiscus flavor, and she noted that the tacos tasted fresh.
At Alfadhalah’s recommendation, I added a taste of Syria to our table with a bowl of falafel, mutubal (eggplant dip), pita and salad. We all ended up sharing the falafel, which was perfectly crispy on the outside. The pita, warm and pillowy, paired perfectly with the smooth mutubal and zippy salad dressing.
Of course, I couldn’t leave without sampling the dessert menu. Although the brownies did look appealing, the three of us shared a sesame dark chocolate cookie laced with tahini. The nuttiness from the sesame and the quality of the chocolate made it stand out from typical Nestlé fare, and it was a perfect size to end the evening on a sweet note without feeling overly stuffed.
In our interview, Alfadhalah emphasized Mera’s goal of being a positive force to both employees and the community. Mera is currently working with the Baltimore Roundtable for Economic Democracy to build a worker cooperative, although legal issues have made it difficult to officially have multiple owners. In addition, Mera has a nonprofit arm that pays staff through grants and donations to cook meals for community members. As of January, Mera was providing 700 meals a week via City of Refuge and Asylee Women Enterprise, with a cumulative total of 160,000 meals and counting.
“We’ve been thriving because of others believing in us,” Alfadhalah said. “The least thing we could do is reciprocate.”
On our way out, my roommates and I already began to plan when we would come back. Of course, we did have a laundry list of menu items to try in the future, ranging from the baklava buns to the chicken tamales. However, we also noted how the space seemed like the perfect place to spend an afternoon studying or linger over drinks with an old friend. Maybe Mera truly is about more than just the food.
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