With a population just over 1,000, Elkader probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind when thinking of cultural diversity. But not only is this northeast Iowa town named after a famous Algerian, Emir Abdelkader, it is also sister cities with Mascara, Algeria, and home to Schera’s Algerian-American Restaurant.
Opened in 2006 by native Iowan Brian Bruening and French-Algerian Frederique Boudouani, Schera’s has become a staple on Elkader’s main street and a regional cultural and culinary destination.
Bruening and Boudouani met while attending college in Boston, later marrying and moving back to Iowa to escape the bustle of the city. The couple were immediately drawn to Elkader due in part to its ties to Algeria but also because of the town’s vibrant downtown, Bruening said. When the opportunity arose to open a restaurant, they jumped at it, despite their lack of formal culinary training — Bruening earned his master’s of fine arts in creative writing, Boudouani a Ph.D. in computer engineering
With Schera’s, Bruening and Boudouani developed a menu that incorporates “modern interpretations” of traditional Algerian, North African and Mediterranean cuisines as well as classic Midwestern favorites.
“We wanted to give people an option to have something they normally don’t have access to,” Bruening said.
Although Boudouani left the restaurant in 2011 to open a beer distribution company, Bruening carries on in the kitchen, but said he doesn’t prefer to be called “chef.”
“I’m more comfortable being called a cook because I draw a lot from family cooking,” he said. “Some of the best meals I’ve had have been in someone’s house, so we try to recreate that here.”
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In fact, Breuning said he especially draws inspiration from Boudouani’s mother, Fettouma, who still lives in Algeria and doesn’t speak English.
“Despite significant language barriers,” Bruening said, “cooking is one way we can talk.”
Cooking with Fettouma, Bruening said he was impressed by her ingenuity in the kitchen and her ability to cook with “whatever is in front of her.”
Applying a similar philosophy at Schera’s, Bruening tries to use fresh, local ingredients whenever possible to create hearty, fulfilling and often vegetable-heavy dishes seasoned with a core of Algerian spices, including cinnamon, cumin, black pepper and others. Their signature dish, for example, is the couscous royale, a hearty vegetable stew with potatoes, carrots, zucchini, onions and tomatoes served over couscous.
“You’ll never get bored of the menu,” said Peggy Osmundson, another bartender and server. “It’s like a small taste of a bigger perspective.” Also on the menu, you’ll find traditional tagines, shawarma, falafel, samosas, even a camel burger topped with housemade harissa mayo.
“I’ve lived here my whole life. I’m used to bar food,” said bartender and server Gabrielle Lenth. “This allowed me to try something different.”
Those looking for something more mainstream can find refuge in pork tenderloin, pulled pork, paninis, ribs, or a flat iron steak, for example.
The tap list boasts a variety of craft beers, wines, signature drinks and classic cocktails.
“I’m a firm believer that food is a good bridge builder,” Bruening said. “We’re opening people up to a different culture, different flavors and different experiences.”
If you go
WHAT: Schera’s Algerian-American Restaurant
WHERE: 107 S. Main St., Elkader
DETAILS: (563) 245-1992, scheras.com