Ethiopian Restaurant Finds Success In Going ‘American’

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Restaurants around D.C.’s unofficial “Little Ethiopia” have been experimenting lately, hosting everything from rock bands and comedy nights, to serving macaroni and cheese instead of injera and tibs. It’s all been part of an effort to stay competitive and alive in the midst of a struggling economy.

So, is it working? Maybe so, at least for Queen Makeda. The restaurant switched over to American fare and has been holding hip hop nights and hosting bands. It’s been so successful that the restaurant now needs more space. This weekend will be Queen Makeda’s last night at 1917 9th St. NW. The restaurant is closing with plans to reopen in a bigger space in the neighborhood.

“There’s definitely a niche in D.C. for what we do,” said Queen Makeda bartender Jeremy Quarless-Cole. “You have to [change] in that area, simply because there are so many Habesha restaurants serving the same food.”

Perhaps there’s still a healthy market for Ethiopian food in D.C. Just not when it’s all concentrated within a few blocks.

Cupcakes and Bulletproof Glass

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Nothing says neighborhood change and gentrification like a cupcake shop. But what if such a shop has bulletproof glass inside? The Washington City Paper reports that the first cupcake shop east of the Anacostia River, Olivia’s Cupcakes, has a “thick sheet” of bullet-resistant glass behind the counter:

“It broke my heart to do that, but it’s a deterrent,” says proprietor Cindy Bullock, who runs the cupcake shop alongside her husband, Bob Bullock, and their daughters, Kristina, 20, and Alexis, 18.

“Several people asked (about the glass) and said, ‘It’s a beautiful shop, its unfortunate that you have it up,’ but we had to have it,” Bullock says.

“I have owned several business in this area and we have been robbed several times,” she explains. “We wanted to make [the shop] elegant and beautiful, but because of the teenagers and having my children here we wanted to protect them.”

D.C.’s bullet resistant glass initially appeared in stores in the wake of the 1968 riots, and became much more widespread at the height of the crack epidemic. Like the Bullocks, many store owners have installed glass after bad experiences.

In gentrifying neighborhoods, the glass barricade coming down is a turning point. It’s also sometimes necessary to appeal to a wealthier clientele. Take Logan Circle, where most liquor and convenience stores had the glass for decades. Then Whole Foods opened on P Street, NW in 2000. Property values rose, and Amare Lucas, owner of Best-In Liquors on P and 15th streets NW decided to take down his glass. The more inviting atmosphere, along with new stock he brought in, attracted more customers, new and longtime residents alike. “Some [customers] told me they had been in the neighborhood for 15 years, kind of passing the store by because of the glass,” Lucas told Washington City Paper‘s Dave Jamieson in 2005. “They’re in my store now. It really gives you a satisfaction.”

Ethiopian Restaurant Converts to ‘American’ Fare

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Is Ethiopian food slowly disappearing along U Street?

Ethiopian restaurant Almaz is undergoing a renovation and will reopen in a few weeks with a new menu of “American” fare, reports Prince of Petworth.

The U Street restaurant is joining other Habesha eateries in “Little Ethiopia” that have repositioned themselves in an increasingly difficult market. The recession and the concentration of so many Ethiopian restaurants in such a small area has led other owners to also convert their menus, such as Queen Makeda. Other restaurants are opening their doors to new kinds of clientele and uses, including rock concerts. Almaz itself participated in a recent rock festival that brought country and western music to the U Street restaurant.


Getting Fast Food Restaurants to Serve Better Veggies

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Living near a grocery store doesn’t mean you’ll have a healthier diet. On the flip side, proximity to fast food joints does affect your eating habits, particularly if you’re low income. So is the fix for unhealthy diets to get rid of fast food restaurants altogether?

Owners of one D.C. restaurant — Amsterdam Falafel, which sells $5.50 falafels — say not necessarily. Instead, they’re organizing a veggie flash mob to encourage fast food restaurants to serve higher quality vegetables. Eater DC reports:

As owner and organizer Arianne Bennett explains, “We walk into a hot dog place or a hamburger place and you smell everything and it smells so good. You should walk into a place where vegetables are being carried and where the place smells absolutely delicious.”

Some fast food restaurants, such as McDonald’s, have answered calls for healthier options by placing salads and other items on menus. Perhaps more people would opt for salads instead of burgers if the vegetables were fresher, locally-grown and still inexpensive.

In Your Words: the Importance of Authenticity in Food

Our post on what makes a restaurant authentic posed a question: does the authenticity of food matter to you? The responses so far indicate that no, as long as the food tastes good.

Bardia Ferdowski, an Iranian immigrant who opened a Cajun restaurant in Adams Morgan, was quoted in the original post as saying what matters the most is that “the food is good and comes from the heart.” Commenter rmpmcdermott agreed, writing:

“If you care enough about the food and the tradition and you study the culture and the reasons behind the food then you can make great food from any culture outside of your own. It’s all about respect to me. Respect for the culture. Respect for the ingredients. In fact I’ve had Italian food cooked by non-Italians who really cared about the food and it was way better than food I’ve had by Italians who clearly didn’t care.”

Houston Press food blog Eating Our Words weighed into the debate tweeting that “the concept of ‘authenticity’ is such a nebulous thing to define, much less capture.”

@ And often, it's those cross-pollinated, inauthentic dishes that end up standing the test of time & becoming their own cuisine.
Eating Our Words

Even the best efforts of old country-trained chefs may be thwarted; some dishes can never be replicated due to differences in available ingredients, writes commenter lacrisha jones: “I think the only way to get ‘authentic’ cuisine is to go to the place where it actually comes from. The water, soil, grass and air all make a food what it is, and those elements can’t be transported somewhere else.”

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Home Cooking: Middle Eastern Italian Food

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Does it matter if the tomato sauce recipe was developed by an Italian?

Friday’s post “What Makes a Restaurant Authentic?“, in which I interviewed chefs hailing from countries other than the cuisine they prepare, held a particular resonance with me. I’m Iranian-American, and my family owns an Italian restaurant.

How in the world did that happen? Not much differently than it happened for the other restaurant proprietors I profiled: my father arrived in the U.S., put himself through school by working at Italian-owned restaurants and he paid attention to what worked and what didn’t. He developed his own sauce recipe and, taking a risk, opened his own restaurant.

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What Makes a Restaurant Authentic?

Hungarians preparing Japanese dishes; Koreans serving Eastern European fare; Salvadorans making kabobs –a number of D.C. chefs and restaurant owners serve cuisine from countries far from their motherlands. Some to great acclaim.

But is the food authentic? Does it even matter?

“There are two kinds of music: Good music, and the other kind.” – Duke Ellington
Washingtonian food critic Todd Kliman answers with a Duke Ellington quote: “There are two kinds of music: good music, and the other kind.”

“Is it desirable [for food] to be authentic? It depends on who you ask,” Kliman says. “Some people say ‘Yes.’ Others say, ‘It doesn’t matter as long as the food is delicious.’”

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Fast Food and Food Deserts

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This Burger King hamburger has 1,010 calories and the fries have 500 calories.

Many of the tactics cited to fight food deserts focuses on encouraging supermarkets to open in neighborhoods where there aren’t many. But a new study shows that simply bringing in a grocer doesn’t translate into healthier eating habits.

The Archives of Internal Medicine published the study, which shows that having more grocery stores in neighborhoods didn’t have much of an impact on how many fruits and vegetables people ate. The study does, however, find another link between income and fast food, reports Reuters Health:
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More Pho Options in D.C.

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Pho, delicious pho.

D.C.’s food truck scene just got a little more diverse with the start of Phonomenon, the city’s first pho truck. Look out, San Francisco!

The prevalence of the Vietnamese noodle soup in the District-proper has grown in recent months. Pho DC opened its doors in Chinatown this past winter, and Instant Noodles, which serves pho in addition to other dishes, opened this month in Adams Morgan.

Most of the District’s estimated 1,600 Vietnamese residents reside in the Columbia Heights area, where Pho 14 and Pho Viet are located. But those searching for a plethora of Vietnamese restaurants and businesses may find themselves leaving the District — Fairfax County, Va., where an estimated 26,000 Vietnamese reside, is also home to Eden Center, a large Vietnamese shopping center and self-proclaimed “heart and soul” of the East Coast Vietnamese community.

Why Rock Bands are Playing D.C.’s Ethiopian Restaurants

Courtesy of Bora Chung

Brian Waitzman plays with pop-Americana singer Flo Anito at Almaz on Sunday. An Ethiopian flag hangs behind him.

On Sunday afternoon, Ethiopian music blared from speakers in the first floor dining room of 1920, a Habesha restaurant in the heart of Little Ethiopia. But the sound of a woman crooning in Amharic was overpowered by Bake Sale, a post-pop rock band playing on the second floor.

All up and down the U Street Corridor this past weekend, bands representing an eclectic range of rock music played in Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants as part of the first Sweet Tea Pumpkin Pie Music Festival. Six Habesha-owned or themed restaurants took part.

Organizer Dave Mann said when he first hatched the idea to hold a two-day rock music festival, he asked the city’s more traditional rock venues to host shows, “but they weren’t into it.” Some already had booked calendars and this was the first STPP festival, so it was uncertain how much revenue it’d bring in.

Then Mann met Mike Naizghi, the Eritrean owner of Bella Café, who was looking for music to fill the second-floor of his café that serves American and Eritrean fare. He then introduced Mann to more Little Ethiopia restaurant owners, and soon six were on board. The restaurants made money through drink and food sales, the bands made money through merchandise sales and all shows were free. Mann brought more than 100 bands to the restaurants and he plans to hold a bigger festival in October.

“The consensus of all of the owners of the Ethiopian restaurants is, they say to me, ‘Look, there are tons of Ethiopian places in D.C., so obviously a lot of them aren’t going to have the same amount of business as the others. We need a different clientele,’” Mann said.

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