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Kimani Browner-Allen is the owner-operator and executive chef of River East Café located inside the Congress Heights Arts & Culture Center in Southeast D.C. While the restaurant held its grand opening last week, for Browner-Allen—or Chef Ki—the endeavor was a lifetime in the making.

Chef Ki was born and raised in Ward 8, and he learned his way around the kitchen by watching his grandmother, who was his primary caregiver. He was always interested in and passionate about cooking, and after high school, he served as a food service specialist in the United States Army. He gained valuable experience cooking in the military, and when he retired, he enrolled in and graduated from culinary school.

Next he worked at restaurants including Smokehouse 54 at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland and Jackson 20 in Alexandria, all while launching his own catering company and personal chef business. He also had a strong desire to give back to his neighborhood, and did so by teaching basic cooking skills to students at elementary schools and volunteering his catering services to nonprofits such as ManPower DC headed by Jimmie Jenkins.

But Chef Ki felt there was even more that he could contribute. “Ward 8 is located in a food desert,” he says. “We have a lot of fast food carry outs that usually serve meals high in sodium and saturated fat, and we only have one full service grocery store in Ward 8.”

Food deserts are generally located in lower income and underserved communities where there is minimal access to fresh food. Eradicating food deserts can be challenging because their existence is linked to other complex socioeconomic factors. But Chef Ki was not deterred. “I wanted to create an opportunity for our residents to have access to healthier food.”

He whipped up an innovative menu based on nutritious recipes and fresh ingredients, and with assistance from Keyonna Jones-Lindsay, the director of Congress Heights Arts & Culture Center, the River East Café was born. They serve vegetarian and vegan options, and Chef Ki says he felt it was important to offer familiar dishes that were “relatable to his clientele.”

For example, he calls his take on a traditional half-smoke, made with grass-fed beef, “The Benny.” The name pays homage to Ben’s Chili Bowl, the establishment that made the half-smoke synonymous with D.C. cuisine. But there’s also a vegan version called the “Underdawg,” which was so popular it sold out at last month’s Art All Night celebration in Congress Heights. 

The most popular menu items are the “Crankin Cajun” pasta ($18) with blackened salmon or blackened chicken, as well as the “Souf Sidios” street tacos on flour tortillas that cost $3 each and come with various toppings. Another favorite selection is the “Uncle Salm” salmon sandwich featuring a blackened salmon filet served with avocado mayo on a freshly baked ciabatta roll.

The River East Café is open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 8 p.m. Every Thursday from 6:30 to 9 p.m. the restaurant hosts a jazz happy hour when the whole menu is on offer and local musicians perform. Every third Sunday of the month, the cafe hosts a “sip and shop brunch” with a local vendor marketplace and a special breakfast menu featuring chicken and waffles, shrimp and grits, and cinnamon apple pancakes.

River East Café, 3200 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave.; chacc.org/rivereastcafe