Eritrean and Ethiopian Cafe brings authentic African cuisine to Tulsa
Eritrean & Ethiopian Cafe's Veggie Combo
After telling an out-of-town friend about Tulsa’s bustling food scene, I ate my words when he asked me, “any good African food?”
I couldn’t think of a single place. It seemed that Tulsa’s culinary options weren’t nearly as progressive as I’d thought.
But, thankfully, I was wrong. Yonas and Feven Abraham are introducing Okies from the Tulsa area and beyond to authentic African cuisine at their Eritrean and Ethiopian Cafe.
Yonas made his way to America by a turn of fate that he says was not unlike “winning the lottery.” A friend filled out a work visa application on his behalf and helped him score a spot in a work program in the States—something Yonas says was pretty rare to find. He landed in Dallas, but a friend at Rhema Bible College in Broken Arrow soon talked him into relocating to Oklahoma.
“You have to have a call to come to Tulsa,” Yonas said. Lucky for us, Yonas heard his loud and clear.
Yonas’s background is in engineering, but when a staffing change left him out of work, he started to wonder if his next professional endeavor might not be in a cubicle, but in a kitchen instead. A devout man of faith, Yonas prayed for guidance and clarity, and it wasn’t long before the next step revealed itself: to open a café.
Without any previous restaurant experience, getting the business off the ground was a challenge. But the pieces soon fell into place, and the customers shortly followed. A fair number of Tulsans stop by the café without any previous familiarity with Eritrean or Ethiopian cuisine, and Yonas says newbies are almost always pleasantly surprised.
“I’ve never had any complaints of my food,” he said with a smile.
His approach seems to be working. The family-run business has been serving since October, boasts a near perfect rating on Yelp, and shows no signs of slowing.
It’s a testament to Tulsa’s hunger for quality international fare and more dining diversity. Although Eritrean and Ethiopian Cafe’s exterior at 69th and Lewis is nondescript, the experience waiting inside is anything but.
Yonas and Feven run the café with the help of their tight-knit families, each of them contributing to and riffing on recipes that have been passed down on either side of the family tree for generations.
Ethiopian and Eritrean food is more familiar than you might think. The majority of dishes are stews and marinated meats served with injera—flat, porous bread intended for sopping up the flavorful sauces and broths. This is not far from the naan and pita pairings often found in Middle Eastern cuisine. A three-day fermentation process gives the injera a sour taste and absorbent bubbles. As an added bonus, the fermentation is said to aid in the digestive process.
With several beef, chicken, lamb, and vegetarian dishes and stews, Eritrean’s signature characteristic comes through in its spice medleys. Dishes are marinated, slow-cooked, made to order, and long on flavor. Service is not always quick, but Yonas is happy to make suggestions for customers in a rush. Truth be told, fresh Ethiopian food is worth waiting for.
Sambusas make for a perfect appetizer and are big enough to share with the table. Similar to an Ethiopian empanada, sambusas are fried, flakey pockets of dough filled with lentils, veggies, or meat. Yonas serves his with a homemade sweet chili sauce or barbecue sauce. Aside from the pastry case full of sweets and desserts, sambusas are one of the only indulgent items you’ll find on an otherwise light, lean menu. Luckily, Yonas’s version of light and lean doesn’t exclude savory and satisfying.
“The people who like to eat … let them come here,” Yonas said.
Many dishes are naturally vegetarian and gluten-free—a fact that’s not at all lost on Yonas.
“Be addicted to it! Be healthy!” he said, pushing my plate closer to me.
The Beef and Vege combo gives diners a crash course in the exotic fare, while the berbere, a spicy red pepper sauce made with a laundry list of seasonings, gives patrons more versed with Ethiopian and Eritrean food a hit of familiar flavor in the Key Wot dish. Other favorites include Lamb Tibs cooked with peppers, onion, and rosemary, and Kifto—super lean, super rare slices of beef dressed with spiced butter.
Trying Ethiopian or Eritrean food for the first time can be a little intimidating. A menu of hard-to-pronounce dishes and a stark absence of silverware on the tables might leave some diners feeling like they’re out of their element. But eating stew with your hands isn’t nearly as strange as it sounds once you get going; the technique comes quickly. Plus, kids love an opportunity to play with their food, and the cafe’s simple, laid-back vibe caters well to family dining (read: no waiters or stuffy white tablecloths). Grab a few extra napkins and embrace the experience.
Yonas couldn’t be more excited to welcome people to ‘his house.’
“I love the people of Tulsa,” Yonas said. “This is home sweet home for me.”
For more from Megan, read her review of Evolve Paleo Chef.