Clustered within a block or two of East Cherry Street and Martin Luther King Way South are four Ethiopian Restaurants: Assimba, Ras Dashen, Lalibela and Meskel.
You will find at least four more Ethiopian restaurants one mile west, on East Jeff erson Street between 12th and 14th avenues, near Seattle University. Ethiopian cafes, food markets, hair salons, phone-card shops and other such businesses seem to fan out from these two hubs, punctuated by brightly colored, whimsical signs in Amharic lettering, Ethiopia’s official language.
Ironically, not many Ethiopians live in the area, and there are a few theories why these two spots have become an Ethiopian commercial center. One is that the first Ethiopian restaurateurs sought aff ordable rents. Another is that the owner of Assimba, 2722 E. Cherry St., the first Ethiopian restaurant in this area, found success here, and soon after, others followed. You will get no argument from her on this theory.
“I was first,” Messeret Tessema said proudly. “I became popular, and they followed me. I started 20 years ago. Before that I worked for a restaurant in Los Angeles, moved here and worked for someone else. I don’t want people following behind me and always checking on me while I work, so I work for myself. And I work very fast.”
“This food is for everybody— not just Ethiopians or other African people,” she said. “We off er lamb, beef and fish, but our most popular dishes are vegetarian and traditional injera bread (made with organic buckwheat) with doro wat, a chicken sauce (stew). We cater to vegans, and those with gluten allergies, with gluten-free bread. We have organic food. We eat with our customers. I do it for the health safety of my customer, not just for the money. That’s what kept me going for 20 years.”
Around the corner to Assimba is Ras Dashen, 2801 E. Cherry St. While the 3-year-old restaurant is somewhat of a newcomer, its owner, Boglach Tessema (who happens to be Messeret’s sister), once owned the nearby Ethiopian grocery store Warka for nine years. She sold it, but it is still open.
“Our stage features live Ethiopian musicians, and sometimes a DJ on Saturdays,” she said. Her restaurant has a soothing, golden-yellow motif and an overt hint of incense and coff ee aroma in the air, and a new, shiny hardwood floor. Some believe coff ee originated in the Ethiopian kingdom of Kaff a, and coff ee plays a big role on their menu.
Fridays through Sundays, Ras Dashen features a free “traditional coff ee ceremony” on low chairs set on a grass-like mat on the stage for groups who plan to dine. Ras Dashen is very proud of the beans it roasts that it get directly from Ethiopia. In fact, coff ee beans are roasted in front of the customers. Also, snack foods such as popcorn are sometimes served as part of tradition.
“I like doro wat best,” Boglach’s daughter, Tigist Alemu, said eff usively. “It’s spicy, tasty and delicious.” She is host and chef, but she will soon graduate from school to work as a dental assistant.
The large Lalibela Restaurant, at 2800
E. Cherry St., was once three storefronts, a video store, office and hair salon. Ermyas Tilahun is part-owner and is operating the restaurant for his sister, Genet, and her husband, Tabor Bakele, who are back home in Ethiopia for a visit.
“We have been here since 1998,” said Ermyas, who also owns three retail photo labs in Ethiopia. He credits Messeret Tessema for starting the Ethiopian trend at the intersection.
“Assimba was opened by pioneers, you could say,” he acknowledged. “This has been a consistent neighborhood for Ethiopian food for a long time; I would say it is not a trend. I have two customers who used to come here as a couple. Now I see them with their 6-year-old. He started eating with his hand.”
It is traditional to eat Ethiopian food with your right hand. It is also traditional in Ethiopia for the woman to do all the cooking. Ermyas said that men share the cooking with women in Seattle Ethiopian restaurants.
“I cook here, but if I go back home, my mother kicks me out of the kitchen,” he said.
Vufan Besha owns Mesab, 1325 E. Jefferson St., about a mile west of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and East Cherry Street. She named her restaurant after the tabletop on which Ethiopian food was once traditionally served.
“I have been here 10 years,” Vufan said. “I moved from 23rd [Avenue] and Cherry.… I like this area. It’s like an Ethiopian town with six or seven Ethiopian shops within four blocks.”
Some Ethiopian restaurants serve wine and beer; others have a full bar. Most serve both lunch and dinner.