The Place: A South Florida search for Ethiopian food, so popular in Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles and other cities, is something of a Quixotic quest that leads all the way to West Palm Beach. Guests at 10-month-old Queen of Sheeba are treated like royalty and can sit in the garden patio under the shade of papayas and Bougainvillea or in either of two dining rooms entered through wide arches. It’s on a quiet street in the historic northwest residential neighborhood of West Palm Beach. Its pale grey walls are decorated with Ethiopian baskets and artwork including a silk scarf depicting the legendary Queen of Sheba visiting King Solomon in Jerusalem bringing him precious gems and other gifts. The tables have cloth coverings and the chairs are plush and comfortable for sitting and eating the food with your hands — although you can request cutlery.
The History: Chef-owner Lojo Washington is from Jimma, a large city in Southwestern Ethiopia where she grew up one of eight children cooking with her mother. She came to New York City 20 years ago to study nursing at City College. When her brother-in-law got an accounting job in Boca Raton, she and her sister made the move south. She became a nurse and met her CPA husband when he did her taxes. In 2006, she opened a takeout place, in the small front part of the building, selling soul food, but finally fulfilled her dream of honoring her heritage by opening in an expanded space with Ethiopian food. Brother Solomon Shone, a cultural anthropologist, helps by taking orders and serving when not on research trips to Africa.
The Food: Ethiopian food is spicy but not blistering hot and is influenced by India. There was a steady trade between Ethiopia and the Malabar Coast of India in ancient times facilitated by changing trade winds, with Ethiopia trading gold for silk and spices. Nutritious teff grains, as small as poppy seeds, are ground into flour to make spongy sourdough injera bread. Here teff and whole wheat flour are mixed with water to make a starter that is fermented and added to a fresh batch of batter, cooked on a griddle like a crepe and pocked with tiny air holes. It comes rolled up like a napkin for tearing into pieces to use to pick up wots (similar to curries), gomen (sautéed collard greens with garlic and green pepper) or kitfo (beef tartar) seasoned with cardamom, cayenne and kebe (clarified butter). There is a large selection of vegan and vegetarian dishes; a vegetable sampler for two; and marinated slices of beef cooked with onion, tomato and rosemary. The national dish is doro wot, a chicken leg simmered with a hard cooked egg in a rich dark red sauce made with onion, ginger-garlic paste, berbere spice and chile mixture and cardamom. Shiro wot is a puree of chickpeas cooked with onions and spices. End with black plum or lychee sorbetto made by a local company.
You Didn’t Know This: It is believed a goat herder in Ethiopia discovered the stimulating powers of caffeine when his goats nibbled some ripe coffee berries and pranced wildly around. The coffee ceremony is an integral part of social culture in Ethiopia, and an invitation to attend one is a mark of friendship and respect and goes on all day. A guest is expected to drink at least three cups served with lots of sugar. To attend a coffee ceremony is said to restore ones’ spirit. Here, coffee is served in a traditional black glazed clay pot with a wood stopper poured into tiny cups.
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If You Go
Place: Queen of Sheeba Ethiopian Restaurant
Address: 716 N. Sapodilla Ave. (between Sixth and Seventh streets), West Palm Beach
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.
Prices: Appetizers $4-$5, mains $14-$15, desserts $4-$6, coffee $3
FYI: Beer and wine available including Ethiopian honey wine