The minuscule building on Henderson Road looked old and deserted as I approached, but the sign reassured me I had found the right place. “The Queen of Sheba Exotic Home Cooking,” it proclaimed. I rounded the corner from the back parking lot and entered the front door. An open entryway held tribal-looking artifacts from a far-off culture, and what might be called generic “world music” played overhead. Other than that, it was silent; not a person was to be seen.
A smiling lady soon materialized from the darker inner rooms of the restaurant and led me through to the a table along the far wall in a cozy little corner of this mysterious place. The tables were covered with white tablecloths bordered with prints depicting either the heads of tribal women or some other decoration. The lights were low, creating a relaxing vibe throughout the restaurant.
The server arrived with a huge smile and an authentic Ethiopian accent. Similar to a tunic, and tied with a rope belt, her dress, as I would come to find out, was a garment worn by a specific tribe in Ethiopia and signified her heritage. A friend had recommended the hot tea, so I requested a cup.
It appeared quickly, smelling strongly of cardamom and cloves, as the menu had promised. Served in a glass mug supported by a metal handle with a ceramic dish of sugar on the side, it was like nothing seen ordinarily in America, and would set the tone for the rest of the unconventional meal.
As an appetizer, I ordered the biticha, a paste of crushed chickpeas and garlic served with a small dollop of berbere pepper mixture on top. The dip, like the rest of the meal, was not intended for consumption with regular flatware. This meal would be eaten with traditional ingera — a thin, flat, chewy bread, similar to a crepe, but more substantial.
The bread comes in scrolls which one unrolls and tears off to scoop up the food. The dip was delicious, tasting similar to the Mediterranean hummus. But beware the berbere: like wasabi, one small taste and my mouth was on fire. A delectable pain, but pain nonetheless.
Queen of Sheba recognizes the fact that most newcomers are unfamiliar to its treats and mercifully offers a sampler dish for the indecisive. For my entrée, I ordered the “Queen’s Eight Meal Platter,” a nod to the Ethiopian style of dining. An enormous plate covering the surface of the table was brought out with a “hat” keeping it warm. Honestly, it looked like a sombrero for the plate, woven as it was with a peak in the middle.
The hat was whisked away with a flourish, revealing the eight items underneath. A range of colors met my eyes as inviting scents barraged my olfactory senses. Served with more ingera, the platter consisted of several wots, or thick stews. I quickly ripped a piece from the bread, and dug in to the nearest wot made of lentils and carrots.
The spices made me blush, but the flavor was comfortable and familiar, not as strange or exotic as I had expected. And so it went as I sampled each “meal”: collard greens, potatoes and carrots, chicken stew, chicken and hard-boiled eggs, beef stew, carrots and cabbage, and crushed garbanzo beans.
Though some dishes were spicier than I had expected, overall, it really was like home cooking. It was filling, tasty and reminiscent of holiday meals cooked by my grandmother. With the relaxing atmosphere, I was feeling sleepy and content.
When I asked about dessert, as the menu instructed me to do, the server informed me that Ethiopians didn’t really go in for the super sweet and heavy items like cake or pie. Instead, they might eat a little bread with honey or some fruit. I said whatever they normally had would be fine, as everything so far had been a stream of pleasant surprises.
The pleasantness continued with the last course: fried bread chips drizzled in honey and sprinkled with powdered sugar made the perfect end to an impeccable meal.
A few other tables had appeared over the course of the two or so hours I had been there. Suddenly, the music was cranked to an almost unbearable level and the ladies working at the restaurant began to sway and sashay across the floor towards the large party of six seated in the corner.
Apparently, a woman in the party had something to celebrate: a birthday or anniversary, perhaps. Our server took a basket and waved it around the head of the honoree. Then, placing it on her head, the ladies finished the song they had been singing while clapping their hands to the beat and gave a last cheer. The basket was then taken down with many laughs to accompany it and the food the table had ordered for the celebration was placed in front of the woman.
I asked the server when she came back to my table what the celebration was. She explained it was a birthday and that they had put the basket on her head as a sign of good cheer for the celebration. In Ethiopia, each tribe has their own distinctive basket weave used to make ceremonial items. When a woman gets married, for example, she wears a basket from the tribe instead of a tiara, like women use in America. I found this to be a fascinating tidbit, adding to the cultural ambiance of the night.
As I made may way to the door, I noticed the articles of reviews past hanging on the walls. I hadn’t realized it, but our server for the evening was one of the owners who had founded the restaurant three years ago. It was no wonder the service had been absolutely perfect.
Moriah Parrish can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org