In the United States, Sudan is known mostly as the place the Lost Boys fled and as the most recent country to bifurcate into two separate nations, with South Sudan becoming the newest country in the world. But Sudanese food is mostly an unknown quantity, especially here in Denver. Sudan shares borders with Ethiopia and Egypt, so it's not unreasonable to expect influences from the cuisines of those countries to show up on the Sudanese table. A recent breakfast at the Sudan Cafe & Khairat Injera Bakery proved some of that theory true, while also proving to be an honest, homey morning meal.
The Sudan Cafe, like many other Aurora eateries, is surrounded by a patchwork of ethnic restaurants: Korean soup master Tofu House sits across Iliff Avenue, while Sushi Katsu and Addis Ababa Ethiopian reside just across Havana Street. There's also McDonough's Pub right next door, if Ireland is as far east as you care to venture.
I headed to Aurora for a late-morning weekend breakfast (some might even call it brunch), a little unsure if I'd even find a restaurant at the address listed on the cafe's website. Google Maps proved unreliable, Yelp was completely useless and even a call to the restaurant resulted in nothing but a generic voicemail box. But the cafe was there where promised, with a couple of minivan taxis parked out front and a welcoming aroma of bread emanating from the doorway. Inside, a pastry case loaded with sweet desserts and a basket of stumpy baguettes confirmed that the bakery, at least, was operational. Several Sudanese men occupied a few of the tables and an "Order Here" sign guided me to a stack of menus on the counter.
We grabbed a table so that we could look over the menu — which ended up being the right thing to do, since a server soon came out to take our order, rather than beckoning us back up to the counter. Foul (pronounced fool) is one of Sudan Cafe's specialties; the fava bean-based dish is offered in several variations: stewed to the texture of refried beans and served with bread; topped with eggs and feta cheese; or left whole and drizzled with olive or sesame oil.
But before I could make any decisions about breakfast, I needed coffee. Most of the other guests were drinking tea, but the cafe also offers Sudanese coffee, which comes in a small tin pot that looks like something that might have fallen to earth from an orbiting satellite. The cup is even smaller, so the tennis ball-sized pot provided several refills of the cup. The coffee itself was herbal, almost medicinal, in flavor, possibly due to the inclusion of chicory.
Once the caffeine hit my system, I was ready for food. Eggs and beans are typical of Southwestern breakfast, so the foul with eggs seemed a natural choice. The flavors too, were remarkably similar to a Mexican breakfast, with a colorful confetti of jalapeño, tomato and onion mixed into the scrambled eggs and a rich, earthy flavor underpinning the fava bean stew. But there was also a distinct kick of berbere spice — or a similar blend, with touches of cumin and hot pepper that just bordered on sweat-inducing. A crunchy topping of fried bread crumbs added texture and the feta cheese blended nicely with the exotic spices.
A plate of shakshouka — a north African dish that typically consists of whole eggs poached in tomato sauce — turned out to be more of the same style of scrambled eggs that topped the foul. At first I thought the kitchen had gotten my order wrong, but a little research uncovered that this is a standard Sudanese version of shakshouka. And it was a good plate of eggs, especially with the warm, crusty bread that came with both plates and served as the main utensil for scooping up the food. (I followed the cue of the other customers in the cafe.)
Tearing bits of bread from the baguette and using them to pinch up bites of egg and fava beans made for a leisurely breakfast with time to fully appreciate the flavors, which seemed so familiar, even in a cafe where the TV was tuned in to a Sudanese news station and the rest of the customers were all Sudanese men — the only women in the place were Amy and the server who took our order and prepared the food.
Some of the customers took home bags of flatbread — whether pita or injera, I couldn't tell — while others lingered with friends over pots of tea or ate alone quickly while catching up on the news. The main components of their meals weren't all that different from at any other breakfast cafe in town — eggs, coffee, tea, bread and pastries — but a few menu items called out out for further exploration. The only meat option was goat or lamb liver, served either diced and sauteed or in a sandwich. Stewed okra and molokhia (jute leaves) over rice were both available, as were a couple of tropical drinks: karkade (made with hibiscus) and aradaib (made with tamarind), neither of which seemed too different from Mexican aguas fescas using the same ingredients.
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In the churning mix of Aurora ethnic eateries, the Sudan Cafe is almost an old-timer at three years (the space has also seen Turkish and Mediterranean bakeries come and go), and the steady business on a Saturday seems like a good sign. So despite the uncertainty cast by the unsteady light of social media, this eatery seems to have found a stable home.
In Ethniche, Mark Antonation explores the cuisine of a culture, region or country every month, visiting four or five eateries for an overview of how that cuisine fits into the Denver dining scene. His explorations have ranged from a deep dive into Salvadorean pupusas to a cross-section of traditional Chinese New Year specialties to a look into the state of Southern barbecue along the Front Range. For the month of July, he's offering a potpourri of cultures with little restaurant representation in town — ethnic cuisines that might otherwise be overlooked.