AS PART OF MY TRIP TO ATLANTA THIS SUMMER, I visited friends in Charlotte, cooked them an Ethiopian dinner (with homemade t’ej), and checked out two new restaurants that had opened since my last visit to the city. On the way home, passing through Asheville and Greensboro in North Carolina, I dropped in on two more. And on the way to and from Chicago a month earlier, I visited newer places in Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Grand Rapids. Here’s a roundup of what I saw.
Charlotte’s Nile Grocery and Ethiopian Restaurant is – like the name suggests – a restaurant and market where you can get a full-course meal, fresh injera for takeout, and everything else you need to cook Ethiopian food at home. The word “grocery” coming first in the name makes sense: The restaurant portion is four small tables at the back of a well-stocked market.
Tsige Meshesha and her husband, Zerabruk Abay, opened their business as just a market 10 years ago and added a few tables for a restaurant about five years later. The couple comes from Adwa, a historically important city in the northern Tigray region of Ethiopia, and Zerabruk works for Kentucky Electronics in Charlotte. He earned a degree in textile engineering after completing studies first at Bahir Dar Polytechnic in Ethiopia and then at a university in Russia, where the coupled lived for a few years until the early 1980s.
Their market is copiously stocked with spices and other cooking items, and for $7, you can get a package of eight fresh injera. Tsige makes the injera herself in Nile’s kitchen using an array of mitads. For many years, she used the Heritage Grill, a product common in Ethiopian-American homes and sold online by Target. But a few years ago, Tsige said, something about the grill seemed to change, and the injera began to burn in the middle. She took pictures and wrote to the manufacturer – to no avail. So she began to use a mitad made by Niat, the Seattle-based company owned by an Eritrean-American man who invented the product (which he calls a mogogo, the Tigrinya word for mitad). Tsige also sells Niat mitads in her shop.
Now, with some glowing reviews on Yelp, the couple hopes to open a full-scale restaurant some time soon. Until then, Tsige will go on cooking at her current location and selling injera to Charlotte’s Ethiopians – a community of about 2,000 or 3,000 people, she estimates – and to her numerous non-Ethiopian customers as well.
A few miles away from Nile you’ll find East African Cuisine, which bills itself as “Ethiopian and Eritrean,” and it offers a few Italian dishes (like spaghetti and lasagna) that are typical of Eritrean-owned restaurants, a cultural remnant of Italy’s almost 50 years of occupation in the first half of the 20th Century. Its menu declares itself to be “Asmara East African Cuisine,” but the sign above the window in the small plaza where you’ll find it simply says “East African Cuisine – Eritrea – Ethiopia.”
It’s two years old, and its owner, Terhas (Terry) Goitam, knows she needs to advertise more to help business pick up. But she’s beginning to build a loyal clientele, and “once they come, they come back. I see so many familiar faces. That’s why I don’t want to give up.” She also caters weddings and other events in her roomy, handsomely decorated restaurant.
A native of Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, Terhas arrived in Charlotte in 1996, moved to Atlanta in 1999, and in 2003 returned to Charlotte, where she estimates the Eritrean population to be about 1,500. In a corner of the restaurant, she has a stage for conducting a coffee ceremony, and she sells spices from a small rack near the kitchen. You can also order her injera in advance for takeout.
Charlotte has three other restaurants, and I only had time to re-visit one: Red Sea, the city’s oldest, opened in 2001. It’s Eritrean, and it was as good as I’d remembered from a visit a decade ago.
My dinner – some chicken, some lamb, and a lot of vegetarian selections – was fresh, spicy and flavorful, and because the owner, Tekle Gebremoses, is Eritrean, he serves some things you won’t find in Ethiopian restaurants – for example, silsi, a deep red blazing hot dish made with tomatoes, onions, oil and berbere. Tekle says that because of the Italian colonization of Eritrean, his country’s cuisine uses tomatoes more liberally than Ethiopians do. The silsi is a treat on the restaurant’s veggie combination platters, and you can get a coffee ceremony there as well.
Heading back to Pittsburgh from Atlanta, I couldn’t resist taking a circuitous route that passed through Asheville and Greensboro, two lucky smaller North Carolina cities with a single restaurant each.
In 2008, a young Ethiopian-American and his wife, Judah Selassie and Getenesh Ketema, began a catering service and pop-up restaurant in Asheville that served for a few years before the couple left the area. So Addissae isn’t quite the city’s first Ethiopian restaurant, just its first-full time one.
The restaurant’s owner, Neeraj Kebede, is an affable and thoughtful fellow from Gimbi, a city 270 miles due west of Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. But he lived in Addis as well before leaving the country in 1973 to attend college in India. He arrived in San Francisco in 1978, lived there for a long while, and about 10 years ago, he and his wife, Vicki Schomer, moved to Asheville, looking for a quieter place to live, and closer to her parents in Virginia where she was raised. The couple also owns Asheville Green Cottage Friends, an “eco-friendly” bed and breakfast they created in 2006, and Vicki is LEED AP certified and a green realtor.
Neeraj,who comes from Ethiopia’s plurality Oromo culture, says there aren’t many Ethiopians in the area – fewer than two dozen – but friends kept encouraging him to open a restaurant: The nearest ones are several hundred miles away in Atlanta or Charlotte (and, lately, Greensboro). So when he did, he persuaded an Ethiopian friend to be a cook, and they’re training others to do it as well. (He confesses that neither he nor his wife can cook Ethiopian food very well.) His injera is gluten free, made at his restaurant with teff and rice flour, but it took him a while to learn to make it properly. In the early days of his restaurant, which opened in 2014, he would drive to Atlanta once a week to get a supply.
During his first few months in business, Neeray told me, he had to turn people away. Most of those early customers were local residents, but tourists are now starting to find him. And that’s not easy: Addissae sits practically hidden on the narrow one-way Commerce Street, and although it’s just a very short walk from busy Patton Avenue – with its many shops, and its cafes and restaurants with live music that spills out onto the street – you don’t just happen across it. Addissae is a destination.
But once you get there, you can’t miss it. When Neeraj opens his front door, the aroma of his cooking wafts out onto the sidewalk, where he posts an Ethiopian flag as a sort of signpost. You enter into a foyer that’s also a small balcony looking down into the rustic and rooming dining space. Best of all, you can peek into a cooking area from the balcony and watch chefs prepare food and warm the injera on a mitad. The restaurant offers generous potions and some basic Amharic lessons on the walls.
Although away from his homeland for more than four decades now, Neeraj has visited over the years. His mother still lives there, and his restaurant bears her name, a word that also means “my new,” referring to something new that you’re proud to have (like a baby). In fact, he has a framed black-and-white photo of her younger ’60s self hanging on the wall in the foyer.
A few hundred miles away, Greensboro, N.C., now has Taste of Ethiopia, its first restaurant, opened in 2013 by Lulit Kifle and her family. I talked with her brother, Bruk Kifle, after my tasty and filling $8 lunch special (spicy, juicy siga wot and two veggie choices).
The restaurant sits just off a busy road at the back of a small plaza, not too visible to traffic, in a part of the building that looks like a cottage, and if you take a table by the window, you can look out and across the street at a mini-forest. The walls inside are decorated with cultural artifacts and posters about Ethiopia. It’s all tables, with no mesobs, and Ethiopian music plays gently in the background.
The family works together at the place: Bruk, who was in banking in Ethiopia, manages the restaurant, handles purchasing, and even waits tables if the need arise; his mother, Azeb Sinke, cooks the food; and his father, Kifle Getachew, helps as well. They’ve all been in Asheville for three or four years, but Lulit, whose husband is a doctor, has lived in the city for almost a decade.
Most people in Greensboro don’t know Ethiopian cuisine unless they’ve traveled to bigger cities, and Bruk said of their usually novice customers, “They’re so nice and so open and eager to taste Ethiopian food.” The one dish that draws some hesitation from his non-Ethiopian visitors is kitfo, the beloved (back home) dish of raw ground meat. It’s Bruk’s favorite, but only customers “well experienced with Ethiopian food, not first-timers,” will try it raw. He estimates that the area (including nearby Winston-Salem) has no more than 300 Ethiopians, most of them professionals, and they’ve lived there for a decade or more, so there’s not a lot of new Ethiopian immigration to the area.
As for the restaurant’s injera, his mother makes it, but it did take her a while to get it right on a smaller American-made mitad. Their regular injera mixes teff with self-rising flour, but they also offer gluten-free injera made only with teff. His mother keeps some batter on hand and makes pieces on the spot if people request it. They use a fleet of half a dozen Wass mitads, and they work fine, although the restaurant makes so much injera that they have to replace the devices every four to six months.
IN EASTERN OHIO, if you want Ethiopian food or spices, Columbus is the place to go with its community of numerous restaurants and markets – compared to just one restaurant and no market in the bigger nearby Cleveland.
But if you live in western Ohio, you can count on Cincinnati. Along with a very good market, the city has several restaurants, and the newest one – which I visited earlier in the summer on a trip to Chicago – is unique and delicious.
It’s called Elephant Walk, and it serves both Ethiopian and Indian cuisine thanks to its married owners: Gurmukh Singh is Indian, and his wife, Genet, is Ethiopian. The restaurant’s lunch buffet is magnificent: Accompanied by the breads injera and nan, you can eat your fill of half a dozen dishes from each cuisine, including such rarely seen Ethiopian dishes as inguday (mushroom) tibs and bedergan (eggplant) wot.
Situated along a one-way stretch of West McMillan Avenue that hosts trendy restaurants and shops, Elephant Walk serves the best Ethiopian buffet I’ve ever had: moist tender doro tibs, spicy chunks of white meat surrounded by onions and peppers; misir wot, the popular red lentil dish, rich with ginger; kik alicha, well-cooked split yellow peas; tangy inguday tibs, with thick slices of mushroom joined by onions, tomatoes and green peppers; bedergan wot with carrots; and the traditional gomen for a dose of greens. I also sampled two Indian dishes: chicken tikka masala, creamy and effervescent; and the unusual tandoori wings.
Both cuisines use clarified butter in their meat dishes. But where Indian ghee is just butter, Ethiopian niter kibe adds spices during the clarification process. My young server said the restaurant uses kibe in its Ethiopian dishes, but rather than ghee in the Indian recipes, “they use ours,” she said – meaning that the Indian cooks use kibe rather than ghee. This hints at who wears the culinary pants in the Singh household.
About four miles from Elephant Walk, you’ll find Merkato Market, a small but remarkably well stocked shop that sells several “brands” of injera made by women in the community, along with many big round ambashas (a doughy leavened bread), all the necessary spices to cook an Ethiopian meal, plus shiro and even bula. It’s out of the way, and from the outside, it looks like a slightly run-down mini-mart. But the owner, Ashenafi Jimma, is friendly, and his shelves are full of good things, a fortunate business for Cincinnati to host, both for its Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian residents.
IN INDIANAPOLIS, St. Yared’s joined two other very good restaurants in 2013. It’s the enterprise of Haile Abebe and his wife, Etenesh, who cooks the food, and who says her mother and sister make the restaurant’s berbere in Ethiopia. Haile, who has a degree in biochemistry, worked at Eli Lilly for many years, but he retired from his job soon after opening the restaurant to play a bigger role in operating it. When I visited in July, I chatted with their son Gobezie, who’s off to medical school soon.
The restaurant, along with the family’s adjoining Global Village Coffee shop, sits in a mini-plaza along Fall Creek Road, which runs through the upscale Fishers/Geist neighborhood, a community of old and new houses that are set back from traffic on lush green tree-covered parcels. The coffee shop opens at 6 a.m., and the tastefully elegant restaurant serves lunch and dinner. There’s a full bar, but their t’ej is homemade, Gobezie told me.
Finally, I passed through Grand Rapids, Mich., this summer and popped into Gursha, the newest of the city’s four Habesha restaurants (three Ethiopian, one Eritrean). Located in a dowdy strip mall, it had the homey feel of a diner, but it gets great reviews from patrons and local writers.
I chatted with Kasa, the owner, whose menu includes the unusual komodoro fitfit, described as a “cold tangy salad of injera, vine ripe tomatoes, garlic, red and green onions, and green peppers” – a description that appears word for word on the menu of the much older Ras Dashen in Chicago, as do a few other descriptions on the Gursha menu. Doro is chicken, but the description doesn’t mention it, and the owner couldn’t find the English words to explain komodoro. But my friend Menkir Tamrat could: komodoro is a sort of Ethiopian malaprop – a misspelling of pomodoro, the Italian word for tomato.
Gursha also has a dish called qelulu, steak cut into small pieces and slow cooked with shallots, garlic, ginger, berbere and other spices. Menkir didn’t know what that might mean, but it’s very similar to a word that means to pile or stack very high, so it could mean it’s stacked with lots of meat.
Gursha features weekend buffets, and on Valentine’s Day, it offered a special buffet with a discount to couples. (What could be more intimate than a little bit of gursha?)
I got to the restaurant between meals, so I didn’t stay for dinner. Still, I wanted to try something, and when I saw kategna on the menu, I requested an order. The owner told me they were out of it. That’s odd: kategna is just toasted injera smeared with berbere-spiced niter kibe, and I can’t imagine an Ethiopian restaurant not having those three essential ingredients. But I didn’t question him, and I ended up having some excellent spicy Cajun pizza that evening. So maybe next time.
University of Pittsburgh