Little Ethiopia


Ethiopian Restaurant Finds Success In Going ‘American’

LollyKnit / Flickr

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.

Ethiopian Restaurant Converts to ‘American’ Fare

avry / Flickr

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.


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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DC9 Death Continues to Cause Pain, Confusion

Flickr: Andrew Bossi

A memorial for Ali Ahmed Mohammed, at the entrance of DC9 on October 24, 2010.

In the early hours of Oct 15, 2010, Ali Ahmed Mohammed tried to enter DC9, a local nightclub located on a block unofficially known as “Little Ethiopia“. When he was denied entry, he picked up a brick and hurled it through the club’s window.

In response, five of the club’s employees chased Mohammed and, depending on which version of events you believe, either beat him to death or roughly restrained him, triggering a cardiac arrest.

After a witness reportedly claimed to have seen DC9′s employees attack Mohammed, Cathy Lanier, D.C.’s Chief of Police, characterized the situation as “vigilante justice“. The five employees from DC9 were arrested on murder charges that were eventually dropped. Mohammed’s death was ruled a homicide.

The story seemed to polarize parts of the city, with fans of the nightclub expressing support for DC9 and its employees while the city’s prominent Ethiopian community decried the attack on one of their own. Even today, five months after Mohammed’s death, some Ethiopian Americans are hurt and confused.

News of the controversy has spread as far as Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, where Abubeker Mohammed, a 29-year old D.C. cab driver with no relation to the man who died, was visiting when he first heard about it.

Mohammed said if the situation were reversed– if the club’s employees were Ethiopian and the man who died was white– then it “would be news all over the U.S. They’d never let them out of jail. Unfortunately, the guy who died was an immigrant. Ethiopian, black, Muslim…he had everything possible going against him.”

Hemen Solomon, a woman who lives in Columbia Heights added, “It breaks my heart that there’s no justice. Who can we turn to?…You struggle to make it here, to have a better life, and all you have is a dead body to take back to where we come from.”
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The City Paper’s Profile of Ali Ahmed Mohammed

Ali Ahmed Mohammed stopped existing on October 15. I use that odd phrasing because of something striking I have noticed– white people tend to say “he died”, while Black people use words like “he was killed”. Almost four months after a death which is still shrouded in mystery, the City Paper’s feature, “Something Happened at DC9. Who Did it Happen to?” doesn’t provide any additional information to those of us who wonder how Mohammed died or why.

So this is what the piece does do; it humanizes Mohammed while providing details about a man who has either been vilified or martyred, depending on whom you ask. This is what it does not do: assign blame. Maybe we’ll never know what happened, but if you are interested in one of the city’s most prominent immigrant communities, the article is worth a read:

One thing to know about Little Ethiopia: It’s not little. Decade-old census figures place the number of Ethiopians in the region at about 30,000, but community members suspect the real number is considerably higher—at least 100,000. It’s the largest Ethiopian community outside Ethiopia, says Andrew Laurence , president of the Ethiopian-American Cultural Center and the neighborhood’s unofficial historian.

Like the demographic that congregates there, Little Ethiopia has been growing. Today, Laurence says, it encompasses a “traditional border of 18th Street in Adams Morgan from Columbia Road to Florida Avenue over to 9th Street along Florida (U Street) to 9th Street and then down 9th Street to Q Street and over to 7th and Q Street.” Of course, Ethiopians aren’t the only ones who flock to the 1900 block of 9th Street NW. DC9, with its appeal to white hipsters, and Nellie’s, a gay sports bar on the corner, reflect two other populations with a growing presence in the neighborhood.

Laurence says D.C. became a hub for Ethiopian immigrants starting in the 1970s, “when Haile Selassie was overthrown.” The Marxist military regime that took over began killing off elites and intellectuals, Laurence says. Many fled to America, which had supported the deposed monarchy. The immigrant population was initially centered in Adams Morgan, near the former home of the Ethiopian embassy.

It’s easy to be a critic, when English is your first language.

Santa Fe Nachos, Dos Coyotes, Davis, California

One of the things I miss most about Northern California is the Southwestern restaurant, Dos Coyotes. Please note: I did not say “Mexican” food. I fully admit I want some sort of “inauthentic” dish which contains spicy salsa, black beans and an obscene amount of cheese. That’s a pretty basic want, but it’s difficult to fulfill here in D.C. When I worked near K Street, I’d go to Pedro and Vinnie’s burrito cart and 80% of the time, I’d be satisfied; unfortunately, it’s not open for dinner or on the weekends. So I often end up at…Chipotle. I know. It’s not real, ethnic food. I know.

But it’s spicy and across from my house, so I go. When I do, the staff switches to Spanish while asking for my order. Years ago, I was fluent in it, so my accent is decent and I can bust out these impressive sentences every so often…but I’m much more likely to be left staring at the ceiling, agonizing over a verb I can’t remember. The 14th Street crew doesn’t mind this, in fact they exhort me to keep practicing. I do, because it’s kind of them to help me, but also because it is a potent reminder of how privileged I am.

I speak English.

It’s not my first language, but I speak it as if it were and I don’t take that for granted. When some dolt on the street compliments me by telling me something like, “You’re Indian? You speak good English for an immigrant!”,  I smile a wan smile and reply that I was born to immigrant parents in California, where English is often spoken.
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Who doesn’t love coffee?

sean dreilinger

Ethiopian coffee beans. Yum.

Right after I mentioned D.C.’s Ethiopian community in an earlier post, someone sent me information (thank you!) about this neat opportunity to learn more about what may be America’s favorite Ethiopian product– coffee. The D.C. Public Library (West End branch) will be hosting a Coffee Ceremony this Saturday, from 10am until Noon:

The coffee ceremony is a tradition in Ethiopia, an East African country that is home of some of the world’s best coffee. Come see the beans being prepared, breathe in the aroma and savor free samples.

A narrator in traditional costume will explain the ceremony, as others demonstrate it and serve the brew. Enjoy coffee as you’ve never had it before, and learn about Ethiopian culture, too. Please join us, and bring your family and friends.

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