THE BIG ATLANTA ETHIOPIAN COMMUNITY really isn’t in Atlanta at all. Sure, the city itself has a few restaurants. But if you want to surround yourself with the culture and the cuisine, you need to drive to the north and east, where the communities around Atlanta host businesses in clusters of various sizes.

For example, there’s East Ponce de Leon Avenue in Clarkston, about 11 miles northeast of downtown. The narrow street, which runs alongside a railroad track, has one lane in each direction, although it seems like it shouldn’t. The businesses that line it are mostly Ethiopian, and so are the people who live in the apartment complexes sprinkled among the businesses. In the evening, Ethiopian neighbors stroll, shop and chat.

Walia Mart and owner Etsegenet Mengiste

Walia Mart and owner Etsegenet Mengiste

Many of the restaurants and markets along East Ponce de Leon are in houses converted into businesses. Until you see the sign with the name of the shop, you might mistake many of the buildings for homes. But these are Ethiopian restaurants, markets, hair salons and gift shops, one of Atlanta’s numerous mini-clusters.

Etsegenet Mengiste has lived in Atlanta for about six years and opened Walia Mart about a year and a half ago. She began by selling CDs and videos, then added spices and injera, along with some household items. She’d like to own a restaurant some day, though she admits that her husband, who works for a delivery service, is the better cook. “I have a plan,” she says, “but I have to start with this.” Her market is housed in a two-tone lavender-colored house, with a front porch that has a table and a few chairs. It’s very small, but she has a website and a business card – the beginning of a dream.

Right around the parking lot from Walia, on the side of the building that houses Etsegenet’s market, there’s the even smaller Enanu Mart. It’s three or four steps in either direction from the front door: forward to a counter, with the kitchen behind it, or to the right for spices and a cooler. The food is strictly takeout – there’s barely room to stand, let alone sit and eat.

And yet, the owner, Enanu Degfe, in business for more than a decade, has a colorful business card written mostly in Amharic. The place is easy for passers-by to miss, and I only found it when I smelled Enanu’s food cooking during my stop at Walia. One doubts Enanu gets many customers who aren’t also her neighbors along East Ponce de Leon Avenue.

Go further down the avenue (so to speak) and you’ll find Yeshi Mart, Corner Grocery, Eyerus Food Mart, and the newly opened Omega Café, a restaurant and hookah lounge owned by Robel Beraki, a young Ethiopian entrepreneur (his name is akin to Barack – as in Obama – and it means blessed).

Corner Grocery and Yeshi Mart on East Ponce de Leon Avenue

Corner Grocery and Yeshi Mart on East Ponce de Leon Avenue

Just around the corner from the East Ponce de Leon places, you’ll find a few more in some conventional plazas and small strip malls. On Market Street, there’s the larger Balageru Food Mart, and on Montreal Road, there’s Shewit Restaurant, Habesha Network and H&B Shop. The latter two are businesses owned by Ethiopians, but they sell a little bit of coffee and some spices, so technically, they’re part of the town’s food community. Half a mile in the other direction is Dalmar Market, in business for 12 years, and owned by an Ethiopian Moslem woman (more on the culture makeup of the city’s restaurant community a little later).

About 10 miles east of these places, and just a few miles north of downtown Atlanta, you’ll find the unique Ghion Cultural Hall, a multi-faceted facility owned by Tidite Kebede. She came to the U.S. in 1990 from Addis, and she’s owned the building along Cheshire Bridge Road for 18 years.

Until three years ago, Tidite called her business California Mart, a restaurant and market that also sold clothing and household items. Some people still refer to it by that name. But now it’s Ghion Cultural Hall, and it houses a restaurant, a nightclub, and a meeting and banquet hall.

The first thing you see when you enter, through a beaded doorway to the left, is the restaurant, where all of the tables are mesobs with chairs around them, and in the corner, the there’s a setup for an Ethiopian coffee ceremony. The restaurant has a small bar, and you can see a part of the kitchen from the dining area. Further down a hallway, on the left, there’s the meeting and banquet hall for weddings and catered events that can hold up to 120 people, with a bigger bar and a stage. This space used to be a pool hall and game room.

The restaurant at Ghion Cultural Hall

The restaurant at Ghion Cultural Hall

The basement nightclub, draped with red curtains and red neon lights around the even longer bar, can accommodate as many as 250 people, Tidite told me. Partners help her run the nightclub because her specialty is running a restaurant and cooking food, and though lots of Ethiopians go there, she said it’s always a mixed crowd because “our door is open for everyone.”

Eighteen years is a long time in the restaurant business, and Tidite said that even though “business is kind of slow, still, I’m surviving.” Her kids used to work with her, but they’re all adult professionals now. She praised their commitment to their mother’s enterprise, and she thanked them for all of the work they put into her business. “Because of them,” Tidite said, “I’m surviving. They’re always watching my back.”

Not far from Ghion, along Cheshire Bridge Road, are two more places: the smaller Embilta, a newly opened café and restaurant when I visited in 2015; and Enat, a bit isolated from other businesses along the street, but owner Martha Kebede opened her restaurant and small market in 2004, so people seem to know where to find it.

 

ETHIOPIA HAS MANY CULTURES, and its citizens speak almost 90 different languages (Amharic is official). The country’s religious makeup is mostly Ethiopian Orthodox Christian (43 percent), Moslem (34 percent), and Protestant (18 percent), and for the most part, they mingle without conflict.

And yet, in Atlanta, I had a hard time finding restaurants and markets owned by Ethiopians who were not from the Amhara culture and who were not Orthodox Christians.

I finally found some Ethiopians from minority cultures and some Ethiopian Moslems along Memorial Drive in Stone Mountain, a community northeast of the city and due east of Clarkston. In fact, there are a lot of Moslem-owned businesses in this cluster, not all of them owned by Ethiopian Moslems. And there are plenty of hookah bars, some of them owned by Ethiopians, and some that serve food.

The Oromo platter at Madina: beef tibs and  lamb ribs (haneed) served atop injera

The Oromo platter at Madina:
beef tibs (suqaar) and lamb ribs (haneed) served atop injera

One of the more interesting places is Darussalem Halal Restaurant. Its owner, Mehabuba Yesuf, came to the U.S. from Addis Ababa about 15 years ago, spending a year in Kansas, then a decade in Washington, D.C., working as a pharmacy technician, and now three years in Atlanta, where she opened her restaurant. She’s from Ethiopia’s Gurage culture, she’s Moslem, and back in Ethiopia, her brothers ran Asli Mendi, a restaurant in Addis Ababa (recently closed).

Her menu has lots of basic Ethiopian dishes, the Gurage specialty kitfo (raw chopped beef), Moslem-influenced dishes like haneed (roasted lamb) and melewah (a crepe-like breakfast dish called fetira in Ethiopia), and even ugali, a Kenyan dumpling of sorts (like the west African fufu), along with salmon and tilapia made in an Ethiopian style.

On Rockbridge Road, just a short walk (across a busy Memorial Drive) from Darussalem, there’s Qulubi, a market owned by a Moslem Gurage woman from Addis who cooks Ethiopian dishes there on Mondays. About a mile away on Rockbridge is the densely packed Webut, yet another market, not far from four others along Memorial Drive.

And in the other direction from Darussalem, about half a mile away on North Decatur Road, you’ll find Tana Mart, which is better known in the community as Aster Injera (and the market’s Amharic name is better transliterated at tena, which means “health”). I chatted for a while with Henok Tekle, the son of the shop’s owner. He was just hanging out, helping his mom, and by day, he works for a medical supply company that keeps him traveling around the country (he has a civil engineering degree from Georgia Tech).

Aster Teklab, who owns and operates the shop, is Eritrean, and her husband is Ethiopian. Henok speaks both Amharic and Tigrinya (the dominant language of Eritrea) – in fact, he says, his Tigrinya is better than his Amharic. The family also lived in Kenya for a while.

Henok told me that the family business began about 15 years ago as a bakery that supplied injera to restaurants and markets in the area. The employees baked all night, and the place closed around noon. So a few years ago, they decided to make better use of their space during the day by opening a small restaurant and market to accompany the all-night bakery. But the bakery is still the mainstay, he said.

Injera prices in Atlanta are low: around $4 for a 10-pack that costs $6 or $7 in D.C., a city with a big Ethiopian community and thus lots of competition. Henok told me that a few years ago, when local bakeries raised the price of injera, customers complained. But as always, it’s location, location, location: Gasoline in D.C. costs a lot more than it does in Atlanta as well.

You need to be able to read Amharic to know that you've found Mulu Mart

You’ll have to know how to read Amharic to find Mulu Mart

Back on Memorial Drive, across the street from Darussalem, the five-year-old Elsa Mart sells spices, cooking items, injera and meat at a butcher shop in the back. Yonathan Feleke, son of owner Elsa Belete, earned his bachelor’s degree in Ethiopia and a master’s in business at a college in India. He helps out around his family market, and he hopes to start a business of his own some day.

Nearby Elsa Mart is Mulu Baltena, a market owned by a fellow who didn’t want to tell me his name (it’s political, no doubt), but who did say he was born in Massawa, Eritrea, and then lived in Atlanta before joining the Ethiopian Navy. His odyssey took him to Russia before America, and he spoke decent Russian (or at least, better than mine). His shop was crowded with spices, cooking supplies, and other mini-mart items.

Further down Memorial Drive from these markets, Madina serves a menu of Ethiopian and Somali dishes, although on the Wednesday afternoon when I visited, a dozen or so customers, all of them men, ate a Somali meal of roasted chunks of chicken over rice – with their hands, and not with injera to grab the food. I chatted with one customer at the register, and he told me he was Ethiopian, not Somali, but that everyone gets along.

Right across a plaza parking lot from Madina is Daallo, a restaurant and hookah lounge owned by an Ethiopian man of Somali culture. He only had Somali dishes when I visited because he needed to hire an Ethiopian cook. He also owned the computer shop next door.

The newest place on the street has an appropriate name: Nadia Ahmed, a Moslem of Ethiopia’s plurality Oromo culture, and a native of the city of Jimma, has just opened her Dream Café, which will offer food, coffee and hookah when it’s in full swing. She had no menu yet, but when she does, she said it’ll be in both Amharic and Oromo, although I got the impression that she spoke the former better than the latter. In the U.S. for eight years now, she drove a taxi and for Uber before opening her own business. She surely faces a challenge: Her Dream Café is on the side of the building that houses the established Madina, which is visible to traffic on Memorial Drive.

The two northeastern most places I could find – about 24 miles from downtown – were Emama Café & Mart and Tana Food Mart, about a mile and half apart from each other in the town of Lilburn.

The former is a small homey café run by Erme and his wife Tutu, although Erme also works for a hotel (Tutu cooks at the café). They’ve been in business for 10 years in an upscale plaza with shops and restaurants of several cultures. Erme told me that their customers are about 80 percent Ethiopian, with some Asian and Latino patrons from the multi-ethnic neighborhood. He also has a few shelves of spices, coffee and even some shakla dists – traditional Ethiopian clay pots – for sale.

Tana’s owner, Dawit Kebede, has a strikingly different story to tell than anyone else in Atlanta’s Ethiopian community. He’s been in the U.S. since 2000, and back home, he was a journalist in a country that jails reporters who write too critically about the government. He’s a friend of Eskinder Nega, an Ethiopian journalist known around the world for the arrests and persecution he’s faded.

Dawit has owned his well-stocked, handsomely kept market and (in an adjoining space) restaurant for 10 years, and his décor is a combination of the traditional and the modern. He continues to do what he can from America to support press freedom in Ethiopia, and he writes for the Ethiopian Media Forum. In 2010, he won the Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award.

 

FOR THE ETHIOPIAN FOOD VIRGIN, Desta Ethiopian Kitchen may be the place in Atlanta to lose it.

The food is delicious – very spicy, in fact – and you can eat it in the traditional way if you prefer. But doing so will take some extra effort.

My meal at Desta: awaze tibs, shiro, misir wot, tikil gomen. I assembled it myself on the injera.

My meal at Desta: awaze tibs, shiro, misir wot, tikil gomen.
I assembled it myself on the injera.

I noticed on my way to my table that Desta serves its food on square painted plates, with injera on the side, but also with cutlery to eat the food. I saw almost no one using injera to grab the food, although a couple at a table across from me split the difference: She used injera, he used a fork.

So when my server took my order, I asked her if the kitchen could serve my selections with the food atop the injera. She seemed a bit puzzled by the request (she was Ethiopian). My food arrived in bowls, and I had the task of lining my plate with the injera and spooning the food onto it. No problem.

I can’t say the same for the two college students on a date sitting two tables away from me. I arrived after they had received their food, and as they gobbled it up using a fork, I saw that they hadn’t touched their injera. At the end of the meal, they told their server that it was their first time eating Ethiopian and it was “very good.” But when the server mentioned the untouched injera, the guy said, “We didn’t know how to eat it.” The server apologized for not explaining (although one would hope that a college student would know the fundamentals of how to eat food). Their entrées gone, they nibbled on the injera and used it to sop up some sauce that remained on their plates.

I’d call that getting to third base.

Ribka (Titi) Demissie, the restaurant’s owner/chef, told me that they serve the food this way “to make everyone feel comfortable,” and while not many customers ask for a traditional plate, the restaurant is happy to serve it that way. We talked after my meal, and I didn’t share my experience. I saw no need: The food was great, the portions generous, the atmosphere convivial.

Desta has a traditional menu but serves its food in an non-traditonal way

Desta has a traditional menu but serves its food in an non-traditional way.
Click to get a closer look.

And besides, who am I to criticize: Her business model works, and on a Tuesday night, Desta was jammed with patrons of many cultures, the busiest place that night at Williamsburg Village Plaza, located at the corner of Briarcliff and Clairmont roads. The restaurant has indoor seating on two levels, a large covered outdoor patio with more tables, and a bar on the patio that makes it all feel like a beachside resort restaurant. Its menu has columns from which you can assemble your Ethiopian platters, along with helpful explanations of the dishes.

Right around the parking lot from Desta, at the same plaza, the elegantly appointed Meskerem – with its white cloth napkins and glass tabletops – was empty. The menu had some interesting dishes. For example: yetebaberut, described as beef firfir topped with tibs and kitfo. The name of the dish is a word that mean “united,” and clearly, it brings together a lot of meat. There’s also yeteragaget, finely chopped lean beef, mixed with spiced butter, mitmita, chopped green pepper and cheese. That word means to insure, confirm or validate, so I guess it’s a promise to give you what the menu says you get (always a good policy).

Across the street from Desta, there was Bahel, smaller than Meskerem but just as upscale in its décor. And a mile away from these two, on Woodcliff Drive, you’ll find Queen of Sheba, another spot for fine Ethiopian dining. The $20 special vegetarian platter includes the rarely seen silsi (an Eritrean dish) as well as dekuse – “green jalapeño,” a server told me, although it’s not the condiment kochkocha (dekuse is a word that means powdered or mashed).

Go a few miles along Clairmont from Williamsburg Village Plaza and you’ll find a cluster of homier businesses and restaurants.

One such place is Bethlehem Market and its sister restaurant and hookah bar, Mena. You can’t miss the sign along Clairmont Drive for the roomy market and butcher shop, which could easily hold three times as much stuff as it does. But if you don’t know about the restaurant and don’t read Amharic, you’ll never find it: Its entrance, half way down a long driveway on the side of the building, has no sign saying “Mena.” The front door of the market merely says, in Amharic: “Restaurant is around the back.”

My souvenir t-shirts

My souvenir t-shirts (click to enlarge)

Owner Aklilu Mekuria’s family owned restaurants in Ethiopia, and when he moved to Seattle in 2001, he opened a butcher shop. He came to Atlanta six years ago seeking new business opportunities (Seattle has a very crowded Ethiopian community), and now he sells spices, meat and prepared meals at the spacious, darkly lit Mena. His market also sells Ethiopian wine and beer (when he can get it from a supplier), and he told me that soon he’ll carry Acacia and Rift Valley, two new wine labels made in Ethiopia by Castel that have just begun to export to the United States.

This could be a challenge: These new wines were still almost impossible to find in Washington, D.C., during the summer of 2015, and other market and restaurant owners in Atlanta told me there was a supply problem. But I’ve often found that the problem is more one of establishing a sound business practice and a supply pipeline than anything at the Ethiopian end.

Where Clairmont Road meets Buford Highway, turn left and right and you’ll come upon another cluster of businesses. One of them led me to a souvenir that I’ll cherish for years to come.

Lion Market on Buford Highway had opened just a month earlier when I stopped by to visit the two Kassaye brothers tending the shop: Yohannes, a junior at Jackson State University studying electrical engineering; and Amanuel, who had just graduated from high school and will join his brother at JSU. Their littlest brother sat in a corner playing on his iPad as we talked, and the shop’s owner, big brother Yonathan, wasn’t around.

Yohannes told me that Atlanta has two types of Ethiopian restaurants: ones that cater to tourists, and ones for Ethiopian people. The former give smaller portions, but the others know that Ethiopians want to be full, so the portions are much larger. I didn’t have enough time in the city to test his theory.

lionsmarket

The shop itself sat in a small plaza along Buford Highway and just a few storefronts away from Lions Lounge, a restaurant and nightclub owned by their uncle. The shop had all the familiar goods: spices, coffee, injera, household items. But on one shelf, I saw piles of amusing food-and-drink-themed t-shirts, many of them with t’ej on the front, all of them made in Ethiopia.

How perfect is this, I thought: I make t’ej and write about it. I must buy the t-shirt that says: “Save water, drink tej” (although, of course, one makes t’ej by combining honey and water). But alas, the sizes were monster: all XXL and XXXL. I take a medium. So after chatting with the brothers some more, and lamenting that I couldn’t buy a t-shirt, I said goodbye.

Then, just as I was about to unlock my car and drive away, Yohannes shouted out to me: “I just called someone. That’s XXL in Ethiopia. In America, it’s a medium!”

Sure enough, he was right. Ethiopians are much smaller than Americans, and the eye can play tricks, so when I saw XXL on the label, the shirt suddenly looked huge to me. When I tried it on, it fit nicely, and now it’s mine (dark blue v-neck version), a bargain at $10 for a traveler who rarely buys souvenirs. I’ll have to be careful not to spill rich buttery wot on it when I have an Ethiopian meal.

A little further down Buford Highway, I ended up taking home another t-shirt: This one glistening white, with “Got Tej?” on the front above a berele filled with the golden elixir. It was a gift from Selam Negus, the generous owner of Konjo Habesha, a four-month-old clothing and gift shop. Selam has a master’s degree in business and designs clothing herself, so she sells her work (and the work of others) in her shop.

I almost missed the t-shirt on the shelf, but then Selam asked me my t-shirt size. When I told her, she offered me the shirt as a gift. She refused to let me pay her, so I hope this shout-out compensates a little. (And she does sell Ethiopian coffee, so on one shelf of her shop, she trades in food.)

Elsewhere along Buford Highway, a growing commercial stretch with the traffic lights to prove it, you’ll find Merkato, which has been around for 20 years, 10 of those under the ownership of Fanta Zewde. The market has a website where you can buy spices, grains, CDs, books and kitchen items, including a mitad for making injera and a large mesob, all of it shipped to you.

Bereket “Bitu” Tsegay’s nearby market, Bitu Baltena, sells some things that I didn’t see in any other Atlanta shop: injera, qocho and dirkosh imported from Ethiopia. These items are abundant in D.C., shipped daily from the homeland, but because the first two must be refrigerated, it’s harder to get them to farther-flung towns. The brightly lit modern shop also prepares meals for takeout (there are no tables to dine in). Just a block away is Evandagi, a hookah lounge and restaurant set to open the day after I had to leave: It has high ceilings, low lights, a bar, and lots of open space.

Piassa Mart tells you where to go in Addis Ababa (click to enlarge)

Piassa Mart tells you where to go
in Addis Ababa (click to enlarge)

If you want Ethiopian food close to downtown Atlanta, you’ll have to go upscale with a bit of fusion. There are two restaurants about a mile from the heart of downtown and a few miles from each other, but they mix their Ethiopian dishes with other offerings.

At E-Villa, the menu promises “foods infused with Ethiopian flavors.” You’ll find Ethiopian-spiced sliders (“kitfo patties,” beef or chicken), Ethiopian spring rolls, lamb chops, chicken pesto pasta, plus the traditional Ethiopian veggie platter, and beef or chicken tibs with a side of Ethiopian vegetables – served with pita, the menu says, not injera, although a tilapia dish offers a choice of either bread. The restaurant’s baked tilapia comes with a “creamy garlic shiro sauce.”

And at Kimi’s Bistro, which is a little more traditional, you can get awaze tibs, doro tibs, lamb tibs, a veggie combo platter (three choices) and even kitfo, albeit “served on a hoagie roll.” The menu also offers crepes, sandwiches (chicken club, buffalo chicken wrap, cranberry turkey) and pesto pasta, plus Ethiopian appetizers like sambussa, kategna and timatim fitfit (chopped tomatoes and injera). The restaurant also serves besso, an Ethiopian barley drink.

Finally, if you’re looking for a place to eat, drink or live in Addis Ababa, then don’t pass up Piassa Restaurant and Mart in Atlanta, about a mile and a half down North Decatur Road from Tana Market/Aster Injera, and two storefronts away from Lalibela, a restaurant and café where you sit on contemporary lounge-like couches and eat your food from cocktail tables.

Piassa is one of the homier traditional places, nothing too fancy: a packed market and small butcher shop on the left, a restaurant on the right through a doorway of dangling beads. But as you pass from the market into the restaurant, look to your right to see a unique tower of street signs.

They’re all in Amharic, but you can pretty much guess what you’re looking at when you see white letters on rectangular green pieces of metal. The restaurant’s website explains its name, which helps to explain the words on the 22 small signs arranged in a vertical row on the wall:

Piassa Restaurant and Mart is named after the famous district in Addis Ababa and many major Ethiopian cities. Around the end of the 19th century, the area around St. George Church began to take on the role as the primary economic and cultural center of the city. Originally called Arada, this district eventually became known as Piassa. Early foreign visitors were impressed by its vitality and diversity. One traveler called Piassa “the commercial pulse of Abyssinia.” During Menelik’s reign, Piazza boomed, and a number of important public buildings, such as banks and a post office and entertainment centers like hotels, restaurants and shops, were built. The magnificent edifices contain a cross-section of architectural influences, reflecting their Ethiopian, Greek, Armenian and Indian designers.

So the signs in Atlanta’s Piassa point the way to other venues and attractions in the capital city, from restaurants, cafés, bars, tea rooms and butcher shops to neighborhoods and even monasteries. The fourth sign from the bottom says Piassa Mart. For Ethiopians, it’s a reminder of home, and for visitors, it’s a chance to dream of being there one day.

Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh

Piassa Restaurant and Market

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