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This Ethiopian restaurant is the crown jewel of Phoenix's African food district

EthioAfrican restaurant serves the best Ethiopian food in Phoenix with injera, sambusa and wots, plus live music and cocktails. Read the full review.

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EthioAfrican restaurant serves the best Ethiopian food in Phoenix with injera, sambusa and wots, plus live music and cocktails. Read the full review.

Published Updated

In a true Ethiopian coffee ceremony, it's not until the third cup that your body enters baraka and achieves a complete spiritual transformation. But I'd already begun to feel it before the first sip, when a server delivered the black jebena pot with a plume of incense that clouded the room.  

The Pimm's Cup cocktail is prepared at Authentic EthioAfrican in Phoenix on Sept. 17, 2022.
The Pimm's Cup cocktail is prepared at Authentic EthioAfrican in Phoenix on Sept. 17, 2022. Joel Angel Juarez/The Republic

My extraordinary Ethiopian meal began with a buzz from a lemony Pimm's cocktail filled with bits of chopped cucumber. Then came the red and yellow stews piled atop a spongy disk of housemade injera bread.

Taking a piece of the sour pancake in my right hand, I alternated scoops of collard greens and berbere spiced beef with a pinch of the explosively hot pepper spice mitmita. After just a few bites, my face was glowing and I was riding a full body high. Then I bit into a raw jalapeño stuffed with chopped tomatoes and onion. Somehow, it tasted cooler than the everything else on the table. 

With its hyper-regional cooking and effortlessly eclectic space, Authentic EthioAfrican is an immersive experience. But it wasn't until the coffee arrived that I realized how special the restaurant really is.  

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EthioAfrican makes coffee a bonding event

Coffee has vast cultural significance in Ethiopia where centuries ago the first bean was discovered in a mossy forest by a flock of hungry goats. In this landlocked country on the Horn of Africa, coffee is a daily ritual, a religious exercise, as well as a way to welcome friends and family into the home. 

A coffee ritual can last several hours and includes grinding, roasting and serving the brew in three stages — abol, tona and baraka — that advance the coffee drinker through a spiritual cleansing and blessing. 

To honor this tradition, Ethiopian refugee Anduale Hassan and his wife Elsabet Tiruneh built a ceremonial coffee area in the back of their newly remodeled restaurant. Hassan's mother Woinshet Belay performs the complete ceremony upon request and on special occasions like Ethiopian New Year.

But on most days when a customer orders coffee, Hassan prepares it in the kitchen and brings out the finished coffee in a rustic clay pot alongside a smoking incense burner. He pours the thick brew from the jebena's long spout into ceramic cups. It tastes of the earth.

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Hassan had nothing when he fled an oppressive Ethiopian government as a refugee in 1998 and ended up in Phoenix. After working for years in the airport food industry, he opened Authentic EthioAfrican as a small takeout window on a busy strip of McDowell Road that's become a hotspot for Ethiopian and Somali businesses like Yenat Enjera and Waamo.

Anebabero is prepared during a traditional coffee ceremony at Authentic EthioAfrican in Phoenix on Sept. 17, 2022.
Anebabero is prepared during a traditional coffee ceremony at Authentic EthioAfrican in Phoenix on Sept. 17, 2022. Joel Angel Juarez/The Republic

This model turned out to be a godsend during the pandemic, and provided Hassan the capital he needed to pursue his passion project. Last June, he got his family together and told them they would not be coming to work the next day. They closed the business for six months of renovations that included a trip to Ethiopia to purchase artwork and wooden chairs that Hassan had specially carved with portraits of villagers. 

The expanded restaurant now features a wall of rustic wood panels and woven messob baskets that punctuate the room with their bright colors. The mood is jazzy and dark. Funky beats flow through the speakers, with the volume at a hum for comfortable conversation. A full bar serves classics like the Pimm's Cup and creative cocktails like a Baklava hot toddy with honey syrup.   

It's not totally polished, but that's why I like it. The shellacked tables sport a logo for Gino's East, a Chicago chain of deep dish pizza restaurants that closed its Valley location in 2018. I spent hours in one of these booths waiting for platters of turmeric string bean foslia and spicy chicken doro wat earlier this year. During recent visits, those kinks mostly have been worked out. Service is not fast, but it's smooth. And food appears in a reasonable amount of time. 

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The menu delves into different regions of Ethiopia

I usually go right for the stews at Ethiopian restaurants, but here I suggest dipping into the appetizers. Deep-fried triangle pastries called sambusas are common in the Eastern Ethiopian city of Dire Dawa where Hassan's wife Elsabet is from. Order a couple for the table and split them in half, taking care not to spill the spiced lentils or juicy ground beef fillings. The dry-rubbed chicken wings are also delicious. 

The eclectic menu also features Ethiopian breakfast dishes, several regional varieties of the beef tartare kitfo, as well as East African riffs on popular West African foods like jollof rice. But my favorite diversion is the pasta, a remnant of Italian colonization in the Horn of Africa during the early 1900s. It's a gratifying plate of cheap spaghetti noodles topped with ground meat and chunky tomato sauce with an undertone of Ethiopian spices. 

Unfortunately it often sells out by dinnertime, so then my focus turns to the wot stews, pillars of the Ethiopian meal. For greater variety, my go-to order is a four-item meat and veg combo. I've been to EthioAfrican at least half a dozen times, and I've never enjoyed the same combination twice. I've also never been disappointed in anything I've tried.

That being said, I do have a couple favorites. One of them is the gomen, collard greens cooked down with garlic, ginger, onions and an Ethiopian spice mix. The chopped collards provide textural contrast. Another highlight of the 10-item vegetarian section is the keyser, a medley of red beets and potatoes in a mild ginger and onion sauce. The color is eye catching and the plump beets also feel like a nice meat substitute. 

A meat and veggie sampler consisting of spicy chicken, collard greens with beef, red spicy lentils and cabbage is prepared at Authentic EthioAfrican in Phoenix on Sept. 17, 2022.
A meat and veggie sampler consisting of spicy chicken, collard greens with beef, red spicy lentils and cabbage is prepared at Authentic EthioAfrican in Phoenix on Sept. 17, 2022. Joel Angel Juarez/The Republic

The meat section can be a little confusing, so it's helpful to know some terms. The word key refers to the berbere blend that's become a symbol of the country's bold flavor palette. And the word alecha (also commonly spelled alicha) refers to a milder sauce with yellow turmeric. The chicken and the beef dishes can be prepared in either of these sauces.

I try to order one beef and one chicken in each style. There's no denying the raw power of the deep red berbere, especially when it's paired with hearty chunks of beef in the sega wot key. No matter what, I always make sure to order of doro wot, the chicken and hard-boiled egg stew that's Ethiopia's national dish. Ripping a piece off that egg with nothing but my hands and a blanket of injera feels downright primal. But also precious. 

Once I run out of injera pieces, I start taking from the bottom, which has soaked up all those sauces, for the ultimate savory finale. When I can't eat anymore I sit back and wait for the coffee to perk me up and send me to a new spiritual plane. I've never had the pleasure of traveling to Ethiopia, but when I'm here, I get a chance to taste its magic. 

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Authentic EthioAfrican

Where: 1740 E. McDowell Road, Phoenix. 

Hours: Noon to 9 p.m. Sunday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday; closed Tuesday and Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.

Price: Appetizers $8 to $9; vegetarian dishes $8 to $10; meat dishes $13 to $14; sampler platters $17 to $18; rice dishes $12 to $18. 

Sound: Deep booths and low music make conversation easy. 

Vegetarian/vegan options: It's a haven for vegetarian and vegan diners with a large array of plant-based dishes. The restaurant even has a gluten free injera made with 100 percent teff flour, available upon request. 

Recommended dishes: Order the meat and veg sampler with two meat dishes and two vegetarian dishes for $17. Make sure to ask for a side of the homemade cheese and stuffed jalapeños. 

Details: 602-252-2286, authenticethioafrican.com.

Stars: 4 (out of 5) 

Should you go?

5 — Drop everything

4 — Yes, and soon

3 — When you get a chance

2 — Maybe, if it’s close

1 — You can do better

0 — Not worth your time

Reach reporter Andi Berlin at amberlin@azcentral.com. Follow her on Facebook @andiberlin,  Instagram @andiberlin or Twitter @andiberlin.

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