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The old adage that too many cooks spoil the soup doesn’t necessarily apply when the folks in the kitchen are part of a food co-op.
Eleven people comprise Mera Kitchen Collective, which has opened its first restaurant in a Calvert Street rowhouse. Eight of them cook the dishes on the diverse menu, built around recipes from the home cuisines of the group’s members: falafel, mutubal, and stuffed grape leaves from the Middle East; plantain bowls and bissap from West Africa; carne asada tacos, chicken tinga fries, and tamales from Mexico.
Mera Kitchen began in 2018 when four friends—Iman Alshehab, Emily Lerman, Aishah Alfadhalah, and Liliane Makole—began holding dinners and hosting pop-ups. Soon they formed a catering company and began helming a stand at the downtown farmers’ market.
In the beginning, Alshehab, a veteran hotel cook in her native Syria, and Makole, who is from Cameroon and has since left Baltimore, did most of the cooking. But as the business grew, so did the number of cooks. Mera made food not only for sale, but, as the pandemic took its toll on the community, for free, giving away over 150,000 meals with the help of funding secured through World Central Kitchen.
In November, Mera opened a bricks-and-mortar location, only to close when a pipe burst in the building. The restaurant finally had a second grand opening in March. After such trials, the dining room, a large, high-ceilinged space, is remarkably serene.
Drinks include horchata and bissap, as well as wine, beer, and inventive cocktails. First order Alshehab’s mutabal, an ethereal dish of smoked eggplant that’s an addictive staple at Mera’s market stall, and at least one tamale for everyone at the table, as you won’t want to share these terrific packets of stewed chicken and vegetables embedded in unusually flavorful masa.
Entrees are more hap-hazard: large bowls of chicken kebsa, roasted plantains, or carne asada, loaded with vegetables and sauces. The vegetarian quesadillas are surprisingly good, jammed with roasted vegetables bound with Oaxacan cheese. Carne asada fries is a massive bowl that demands either serious hunger or some help. But your best bet might be the falafel salad bowl, a mashup of fattoush, crispy globes of excellent falafel, house-made pita bread, and more of that wonderful mutubal.
The dishes are contingent upon “whoever’s there, and whatever they want to cook,” Lerman says. But whatever you get, ask for a side of the hot sauce that accompanies the Burkinabé plantain and avocado bowl, an incendiary tablespoon of ginger-habanero sauce that comes with a caution from the server. The stuff is very, very hot, but—as could be said about Mera itself—it’s absolutely worth the experience, and you’ll likely find yourself craving more.
MERA KITCHEN COLLECTIVE 1301 N. Calvert St., 443-681-9855. HOURS: Tues.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. PRICES: Appetizers: $2-14; entrees: $11-15.50; desserts: $6.