When Jamal Ansari, owner of the Mediterranean Cruise Cafe, came to the United States from Jerusalem at a young age in 1976, he and his family believed in the American dream: work really hard, and success will follow.
In 1979, Jamal and his brothers were attending college and motivated to begin their careers with a vision for their own business. While still enrolled in college part-time, the brothers soon saw an opportunity to open a restaurant in Eagan that would reflect their culture and share their family’s food and heritage with the community. It was then the Mediterranean Cruise Cafe (MCC) was born.
Their cafe remained in Eagan from 1980 until 2000; however, for business reasons, the family moved the restaurant to Burnsville. For the past 12 years, it has become a pillar dining and entertainment establishment fully embraced by the community.
Jamal remembers his family’s support at the beginning, which has continued to today. “When we first started, everyone came over and helped — my nephews, cousins, my kids. My daughter and my son were around 18 or 20 when they got involved and are now a large part of it. Me and my children – doing a good job with what they do.”
Mediterranean Cruise Cafe brings the Mediterranean to Minnesota; their menu features various dishes from the middle-eastern region — Jerusalem, Palestine, Lebanon — and Greece using authentic recipes passed down from their family for generations.
“We use the same recipes since the ancient Greeks from the Roman empire – historical recipes from the Holy Land. Food culture and history – everything about life we love,” says Jamal.
Some of their most popular dishes include their specialty homemade hummus platters, fresh Greek salads, falafel, lamb gyros and their outstanding kabobs. However, knowing some Minnesota pallets, they offer a variety of entrees to please anyone.
Jamal explains, “We grew up with that culture of food; we have hummus like the Mexicans have salsa. You walk in you order the hummus plate with veggies or pita. We learned it all at the beginning. My mother was very good at cooking. She’d take the meat to the rotisserie and cook the flatbread, and season it. Our chicken orzo and lentil soup are my mom’s recipes.”
Over the past three years, MCC has diversified, creating its brand of hummus, “Baba’s Hummus,” which they sell at local markets, such as HyVee and Kowalskis. “We’re getting more accounts will be in Whole Foods soon. We make many flavors!” says Jamal.
The food remains rave-worthy, but that’s not the only reason people love MCC. Before the pandemic, the restaurant featured live entertainment daily. At 6,7,8, and 9 pm, the cafe lights up with the belly dancers. “They exude lots of energy and fun and music,” describes Jamal.
Every Saturday night, they also had salsa dancing. Jamal recalls, “A salsa group came to me, explaining they wanted to do a demo. I said, ok. They brought a band with music from Puerto Rico and Cuba – like on a cruise ship. People come from all over to have the most fun every weekend.”
Now since the pandemic, the entertainment is gone, but Jamal remains hopeful. “It will come back…and the days will come back to normal.”
Before COVID-19, MCC featured a buffet of Mediterranean dishes, and Jamal says the customers miss it. “With COVID, we went through tough times but having our own business helped us out. We were patient and did takeout and made excellent packages for the families. We got by pretty well – around 20 percent – but we got to keep the place open.”
When takeout became the only option, MCC developed family-style packages that, for example, would include two pounds of gyros, bread, and hummus for $45. “The boxes can feed 4-6 people…wow! That’s a lot of food. But it’s a good meal. People tell us how wonderful it is to eat something different and healthy,” shares Jamal.
Their focus over the last year revolved around how to stay safe and healthy. “We kept the place nice and clean, and business is coming back around 50 percent. I got vaccinated – people are, and it’s a good thing. Life will go back to normal We’re so grateful to see the smiles and can’t wait for the excitement to come back,” says Jamal.
“We created a life with over 41 years of memories. We get to know the whole town. We come to work, and we see our customers – they’re like our family. It’s not easy – we work hard to earn it, but we keep good systems and take care of our customers, and they do you, too.”