A brisk 20 minute walk from Penn’s campus past the luscious fields of Clark Park will take you to Alif Brew & Mini Mart. The café and restaurant offers mouth–watering Ethiopian food and drink for any occasion, from a mid–morning snack to a satiating dinner. Alif Brew’s mini marketplace also sells a variety of Middle Eastern snacks and spices that bring the enticing and sometimes elusive flavors like those of cardamom or rose water into customers’ homes.
The day before our visit, Alif Brew's staff and guests came together to celebrate Enkutatash (Ethiopian New Year) with delicious, family–friendly meals from a menu specially prepared for the holiday. As we entered, the atmosphere reflected the friendly and joyous spirit of the holiday. Near the entrance, a large sign encapsulates the store’s simple philosophy: “When you’re here, you’re family.” Next to it, a chalkboard features hand–drawn sketches of Ethiopian coffee and injera (a spongy flatbread central to Ethiopian cuisine) alongside the words “AKA ‘Our Vibranium,’’' referencing the Marvel movie Black Panther and invoking pride in African culture. In the back, a grassy green mat is set up with colorful cups, pots, and baskets in preparation for a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. It's easy to imagine families gathering around piquant cups of coffee and wide plates of steaming food to spend time together in the welcoming environment of Alif Brew.
The Alif Special coffee, which can be iced or hot, lived up to its name as the store’s featured drink. At first glance, the umber liquid reveals nothing too special—a simple coffee, with no added milk or cream—but the first sip was absolutely magical. Infused with Ethiopian ginger, the coffee soars to new heights of flavor unparalleled by any Starbucks or campus café: not too bitter, not too sweet, invigorating and enjoyable even for those normally intimidated by ginger.
Brunch started with the Malawah, a layered pancake–like flatbread served with grated tomato, egg, labneh (a tart–strained yogurt), and za'atar (a Levantine spice blend that may include thyme, oregano, marjoram, sumac, and sesame seeds). Presented as a wrap that could easily be used for grab–and–go, the Malawah tastes light and fresh due to its mix of fillings. The best part was undeniably the flatbread itself, which has buttery layers that are easy to pull apart and a satisfyingly soft, chewy texture.
Aesthetically, the Foul won: a fava bean stew artfully painted with bright red and green salsa and sprinkled with feta, all drizzled with a tempting layer of olive oil and paired with fresh slices of pita bread. Somehow, the stew manages to taste even better than it looks: the rich, spiced–but–not–spicy flavors of paprika and cumin mingle on your taste buds to create a sensation akin to cuddling with someone on a cold December day.
The last to arrive was the Birz. Mebruka Kane, the staff member who kindly helped describe the components of each dish to us, compared the Birz to a decaffeinated but equally energizing version of kombucha. In reality, the Birz is an enchanting melody of flavors incomparable to any other drink. The bright golden drink combines fermented honey water, turmeric, cloves, and raisin to create a taste that is nearly indescribable, and definitely worth a visit to Alif Brew to try.
That’s just a taste of Alif Brew and Mini Mart’s menu. There’s still so much more to snack on—injera wraps, sambusa (a savory snack similar to a South Asian samosa), and a variety of fresh pastries. The comfortable, communal environment of Alif Brew and Mini Mart creates an enticing place to rest, rejuvenate, and take in the warm, rejuvenating flavors of Ethiopian cuisine.
TL;DR: A criminally underrated stop for coffee and Ethiopian cuisine close to campus.
Location: 4501 Baltimore Ave.
Hours: 7am–9pm every day