Restaurant review: Mocha Café is a Yemeni-American treat

Halal hybrid

Restaurant review: Mocha Café is a Yemeni-American treat
Photo by Scott Spellman.
9335 Conant St., Hamtramck; 313-974-6073 14456 Michigan Ave., Dearborn; 313-406-4444 10 a.m.-midnight Monday-Saturday, noon-midnight Sunday (Hamtramck) 10 a.m.-11:30 p.m. daily (Dearborn) $0.99-$10.99 | Wheelchair accessible

A certain connotation often emerges with fusion cuisine. The concept at times feels forced or contrived. When offerings like battered mac 'n cheese balls making on a dim sum menu become commonplace, the notion of fusion can be skewed.

View 10 photos of Mocha Cafe here

But before the trend became cliché, immigrant communities all over the United States were fusing cultures together for generations, not so much to be hip, but more so out of necessity. When soybean paste, fish sauce, ancho chili peppers, or fresh cactus are scarce in urban settings, folks tend to improvise in the kitchen. The result: a hybrid of something familiar with newly adopted ingredients. Tacos with ketchup, anyone? How about a hot dog rolled in a corn tortilla, maybe a killer ramen hack, or a bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos doused in lime juice?

In Hamtramck, such hybrid recipes are on the menu of many a hole-in-the-wall eatery. There's Amar Pizza, with its famous Bengali-inspired ghost pepper pizza, prepared in a Detroit square. We see it with the New York City food cart-style chicken and rice plates from Desi Pizza. And at the Yemeni-owned Mocha Café, the burger joint offerings come with a halal twist.

The restaurant's name comes from the town of Mocha in Yemen. The flagship first location (there's a second in Dearborn) sits close to the south end of Hamtramck on Conant in what appears to be a former old-school diner. While to the north, restaurants and businesses are predominantly Bengali-owned, toward the south, there's more of a Yemeni influence, with a number of halal-friendly pizzerias, cafes, and groceries. The Hamtramck Mocha has been newly renovated with comfortable, cushy booth seating and flatscreens for the menu, which hangs behind the cash register where you order. Cases of freshly baked sweets sit near the register in case you want to bring some home for dessert. An expanded dining room appears to be in the works. When we stopped by, we were told the restaurant reopened earlier than planned from a monthslong remodel out of sheer demand.

That interest appears to come from a strong social media following, a testament to the restaurant's appeal to the sizable millennial-aged, first-generation Yemeni Americans who live in the area. While many of the ethnic eateries in Hamtramck serve cuisine typical of their native countries, Mocha Café has captured a younger generation that grew up on burgers, shakes, and fries. The difference is in food that's prepared in a way that's still respectful to the Muslim practice of eating only food that adheres to Halal tradition.

You can find Mocha Café-related food porn on all platforms, including Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram. Viral Instagrammer Chow Down Detroit recently stopped into the Dearborn location and racked up thousands of likes on his depiction of the spot's Mocha steak roll.

As for the food, we can only wish we had an option like this when we were in high school.

The namesake Mocha City Burger comes equipped with a seasoned, 6-ounce, thick and juicy patty (even though it's cooked to a requisite medium temperature), with plenty of melted American cheese, and a zesty special sauce similar to Thousand Island that drips all over your hands when you take a bite. That sauce doubles as an ideal way to dunk the thick cut, skin-still-on fries. It's served in a respectably sized toasted country bun that soaks in the flavors nicely.

The photogenic Mocha steak roll is deep-fried and packed with Philly-style slices of steak, grilled onions, and lots of Swiss and American cheese that oozes out with each bite. On top of the cheesesteak-inspired selection, there is also a grilled chicken, and shawarma roll to choose from. The rolls come with a spicy green salsa for dipping. We recommend mixing it with the special sauce. These fillings can also be found in a selection of sub sandwiches, which are made in a crusty roll, as well as in wraps, which can also be stuffed with falafel, chicken or beef gyro, or fries.

The Yemeni-American fusion is found throughout the appetizer and salad offerings. Bar snacks (sans the booze) like jalapeno poppers, cheese sticks, and chicken quesadillas are all on hand, but so too are stuffed grape leaves, falafel, hummus, and fattoush.

Flip over to the dessert menu and you see how Mocha Café really flexes its creativity. Similar to other Middle Eastern restaurants, there are a number of standard smoothies, fresh juices, Yemeni coffee, and baked treats.

The real game-changers are the hybrid Mocha Treat and Mocha Fruit Cocktail. Here, they start with creamy mango Lassi as a base, which has origins in India (and locally, at many Bangladeshi restaurants) and is typically made from yogurt, water, and mango pulp. Then they're packed with a melody of tart apple slices, sweet banana, strawberries, and pineapple, all of which is covered in a strawberry drizzle. The Mocha Treat comes with cake crumble, golden raisins, a chocolate waffle stick, and pure honey. The Cocktail is topped with ice cream. We devoured the Mocha Treat on two occasions. While the many ingredients suggest a heavy decadence, we found it quite refreshing, dare we say healthy, and it left us with a childlike smile on our face.

When we come across genuine places like Mocha Café, which find ways to respect tradition while showing an evolution of the cuisine, we get excited. The best fusion, we find, comes organically. Mocha Café seems to have hit that sweet spot.

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