'Thankful I am able to rebuild my life:' Longtime Ethiopian restaurant in Phoenix reopens – AZCentral.com
After a six month closure, a popular Ethiopian restaurant in Phoenix is back with a bigger space and shinier look.
Ethiopian immigrants Anduale Hassan and his wife Elsabet Tiruneh opened Authentic EthioAfrican restaurant a decade ago at 18th Street and McDowell Road. What started as an almost entirely takeout operation from a sparsely adorned shop has reopened as a renovated sit-down restaurant and bar with wait staff and live performances from Afro-beat and jazz musicians. Pickup and delivery are still available on DoorDash and Postmates.
At a time when many restaurant owners are opening delivery-only ghost kitchens and scrambling to meet takeout demands, people thought he was crazy, Hassan said. But last year after the vaccination roll-out began, he felt a sense of community returning.
“It is not just about food at this point, it is about the experience,” Hassan said. “I think a lot of African examples of war and civil unrest always get attention. We have that image. As an African and as an Ethiopian, I am trying to change that image. We have great heritage — music-wise, culture-wise, food-wise — and I’m trying to reflect that.”
Last summer he made his first trip back to Ethiopia in more than 20 years, traversing the country seeking out new recipes, ingredients and wooden decor for his reimagined restaurant.
Before moving to Phoenix in the late 1990s, Hassan had no intention of working in the food industry.
Hassan was born to an Amhara father and Gurage mother in Addis Ababa, the sprawling and bustling capital of Ethiopia, a center for arts and culture. He studied political science at Addis Ababa University and as a student, worked as a reporter at a now-defunct newspaper, he said.
« I loved politics and always believed I would contribute something to my country. It didn’t work, » Hassan said.
His aspirations were shattered when the police arrested and detained him for several months to interrogate him about possible dissidents, he said. In a small room with as many as 50 other prisoners, he watched people die as they succumbed to a disease outbreak, he described. The experience led him to drop out of college and leave Ethiopia for Kenya, before eventually moving to the United States as a refugee.
In 1998 Hassan arrived in Phoenix carrying almost nothing but his documents.
He got his first job in America at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, working for the airline catering company LSG Sky Chefs. Later he went back to school, first to Phoenix College, then Arizona State University. He met his wife, moved his mother to Phoenix and returned to work in the airport food industry, where he got a stable job as a product manager for HMS Host, a food and beverage hospitality company.
At some point, after staring down the umpteenth turkey sandwich of the day, he wondered if this was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. He decided it was time for a change.
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In 2012 Hassan and Tiruneh opened their first restaurant, Authentic EthioAfrican, with just two tables in a roughly 650-square foot space.
Hassan chose the location at 18th Street and McDowell Road because of its proximity to downtown Phoenix. He envisioned it as a home-style takeout restaurant among the pizza joints and fast food chains, a place where people could pick up an order of doro wat, a spicy chicken stew, with freshly made injera flatbread. He thought that his mother might also sell baked goods and spices.
The area also had a few businesses that already drew African immigrants, the clientele he was targeting. Further west on McDowell Road, an Eritrean and Ethiopian food and gift shop called Bati Bazaar has been open since 2010. Over time, the stretch has grown with other East African businesses, including Farouk Book Store and Somali restaurant Waamo.
« We are bringing and opening our shops and opening our cultures, » Hassan said. « We are really helping each other, driving traffic. »
A flashy new neon sign and row of green, yellow and red umbrellas makes Authentic EthioAfrican hard to miss from McDowell Road.
Inside the restaurant features hanging wall art and carved, wooden chairs Hassan brought from his summer trip to Ethiopia.
The restaurant is continuing its weekly coffee ceremonies. The ceremony takes two to three hours and involves roasting and grinding coffee beans in front of guests, who are given snacks. The coffee is boiled in a clay pot and then poured into small cups to serve.
“Growing up, that was my favorite thing,” Hassan said. “The aroma, the people start circling and talking. It’s a social communion and I’m trying to incorporate that in day-to-day operations.”
At Authentic EthioAfrican, Hassan wanted to highlight the communal foods he grew up enjoying, a lot of which are plant-based.
Many Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, including his mother, fast on Wednesdays and Fridays and every day of Lent. During the fast, people refrain from eating until 3 p.m. and abstain from eating animal products.
“Shiro wat and lentils — those are my comfort foods. Of course with injera,” Hassan said. “Ethiopians are runners. That diet reflects on us.”
A wat is stew. Shiro wat is a thick stew made from a blend of chickpea powder and spices. Misir wat is made with red lentils, garlic, onions. Different types of wat are often served on a platter with injera, a spongy fermented flatbread that diners rip and use to pick up the stews.
Injera is at the heart of Ethiopian meals, Hassan said. It’s made from teff flour, a gluten-free cereal grass and staple crop in the Horn of Africa, but Hassan now sources teff grown by American farmers in the Midwest.
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Ethiopia has more than 80 ethnic groups, and Hassan explained that the sauces at Authentic EthioAfrica reflect the diversity of Ethiopia, from a fiery hot datha with bird’s eye chilies to milder silijo made with fava beans and sunflower seeds.
The restaurant’s berbere – a hot and earthy, red spice mix – comes imported from Ethiopia and includes among its many ingredients chile, garlic, turmeric, cardamom and ginger. Traditionally, making berbere by hand is a time consuming process that can take days of drying, pounding and toasting ingredients to create a complex flavor.
The restaurant offers two kinds of injera made in house. The traditional version is 100% teff and labeled “gluten free” on the menu. There is also a version made with a blend of teff, barley and wheat that some people prefer. It’s labeled “regular” on the menu.
A large bulk of the menu is vegetarian. Hassan recommends small groups try the vegetarian combo, a platter of injera and four to ten sides to pinch and pick up.
Other traditional Ethiopian dishes include fir fir, made with shredded injera mixed with meat or vegetables in a berbere wot. Tibs is made with a choice of lamb, chicken, fish, beef or vegetables sauteed at high heat with spices, onions, bell pepper and rosemary. And kifto is made with raw and minced lean beef, mitmita seasoning and clarified butter. It’s served with house-made cottage cheese.
The influence of Italian colonialism on Ethiopian cuisine shows up in the form of spaghetti and tiramisu.
The menu also features cuisine from other parts of Africa, such as jollof, a West African rice dish that sparks fierce competition between Ghanians and Nigerians, as well as hummus and pita, Middle Eastern foods common in North Africa.
When other Africans come to his restaurant, they come as his brothers and sisters, Hassan said.
“I left my country and I’m thankful I am able to rebuild my life,” Hassan said. “With ethnic tribalism going on, there is a big movement out there about when we are divided, we fall. A core value of my restaurant is Pan-African unity. … This is a unity of our heritages. We are not just selling food.”
Details: Authentic EthioAfrican, 1740 E. McDowell Road, Phoenix. 602-252-2286, authenticethioafrican.com.
COVID-19 note: Health experts strongly recommend booster shots to protect against severe illness from COVID-19. If you test positive or feel symptoms of COVID-19, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends you stay home and isolate for at least five days, and then if symptoms improve, wear a well-fitted mask around others for another five days.
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