When most people think about eating in Phoenix, they likely don't think about eating African food. And that's too bad. Our metropolitan area is more diverse than many realize. Yes, there's worthwhile African food to be found here, food from across the continent. You can find tangy injera heaped with half a dozen Ethiopian stews. You can find Somali goat, Egyptian coffee, and spicy West African ground nut soup. You can find so much more if only you open your mind. Here are three scrumptious African eateries to start.
Abyssinia Restaurant and Cafe842 East Indian School Road
Abyssinia Restaurant and Cafe serves a fairly traditional Ethiopian menu — there are no intrusions by standard Mediterranean or Middle Eastern cuisine here. It is divided between breakfast (definitely worth stopping in for), vegetarian entrées, and meat and lamb entrees. Within these categories, there are several excellent options. Tibs, or cubed meats with spices and vegetables, are a safe bet, as are the various wats, stewed meats or vegetables that are a staple of Ethiopian food. For the indecisive, the good choice is agelgel: a sampler platter with a variety of different wats and tibs served on a piece of injera. Each item on the platter — there are about eight, including collard greens, cabbage, beef tibs, two kinds of lentils, and two kinds of meat wats — is excellent. Flavors of garlic, paprika, and the essential Ethiopian spice, berbere, pervade. Traditional Ethiopian spiced coffee is worth getting at the end of your meal, too.
AT Oasis Coffee & Tea Shop4613 East Thomas Road
The main draw at AT Oasis is the coffee. It's roasted in-house using Ethiopian beans, and the flavor is excellent. The menu does have some Western coffee items — including lattes and chai teas — but the real highlight is the Ethiopian ginger coffee, which tastes exactly like it sounds. It's a strange but comforting combination of sweet, bitter, and spicy. The more intrepid can also participate in a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, complete with complimentary biscotti and coffee served out of a gourd, or order from an array of both Ethiopian and American-style pastries, as well as a menu of some injera and pita dishes and wraps.
Authentic Ethio African1740 East McDowell Road
Despite an awning striped with the green, yellow, and red of Ethiopia's flag, Authentic Ethio African is hiding in plain sight on 18th Street and McDowell Road. Inside, you'll likely see wide, chestnut-colored pancakes. These are the Ethiopian flatbread known as injera, and they are the heartbeat of Ethiopian cuisine. Authentic Ethio offers numerous combo platters that feature preparations served on injera. Plant options include split peas, lentils, collards, and cabbage and carrots with turmeric. Animal options include chicken, beef, and fish. Authentic Ethio also sells uncooked Ethiopian specialties to go: coffee beans, lentils, flax seeds, turmeric, and other spices. You shouldn't expect full-service comforts in this nook that specializes in takeout, but there is great food to be found under the striped awning.
Cafe Lalibela849 West University Drive, Tempe
Mom always got after us when we ditched the knife and fork to eat with our fingers, but we got our comeuppance when we discovered Ethiopian cuisine, traditionally scooped up by hand with moist, spongy bread called injera. At Café Lalibela, the food's so tasty that one could call it finger-licking good, but as it turns out, taking the expression literally is bad manners in Ethiopian culture. No worries, though — the sourdough flavor of injera is truly addicting, and we're happy to tear off big pieces of it to grab at yawaze yebeg tibs (spicy cubes of pan-fried lamb) and kye sega wat (tender beef simmered in spices). Café Lalibela's vegetarian specialties are amazing, too, from garlicky collard greens to flavorful lentils and peas. Turns out mom was actually on to something when she made us eat our veggies.
Jollof King325 West Elliot Road, #103, Tempe
Jollof King, a West African restaurant in Tempe that opened three months ago, features Ghanaian food with a few Nigerian touches. Stews, soups, dumplings, and starches like jollof rice are cornerstones of Ghana's diet. The food of West Africa has earned a reputation for its chile heat, and little-known peppers like the Guinea pepper and alligator pepper are widely known there. If you go to Jollof King, you would be smart to try one of the nut soups, Ghanaian staples with no analog in western gastronomy. Phoenix doesn't have a ton of African restaurants. The African country most represented is Ethiopia, a country 4,000 miles from Ghana. The cuisines are very different. Eating at a place like Jollof King, where you can savor okra stew or egusi, soup made with melon seeds, you wish we had more African options.
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Tina’s Ethiopian Cafe2081 North Arizona Avenue, #125, Chandler
Ten years later, Tina’s Ethiopian Cafe is back in Chandler. Owner and chef of Tina’s Ethiopian Café Tina Tamrat Hildebrand re-opened her eatery as a self- service restaurant. The cafe keeps the menu tight, offering a short list of vegetable entrees and meat entrees — each served with injera (that spongy-looking and delicious flat Ethiopian bread) or with white rice — and side salads. Wats rule the menu and are easily served to-go style for quick take out. Colorful African décor adorn but don’t clutter walls and corners, and the black-and-white checkered tile gives it a real kitchen feel.
Waamo5050 East McDowell Road
“If you’re going to invite somebody in your home in Somalia, you cook goat,” says Basheir Elmi, owner and host of Waamo. For his signature goat dish, he cooks “everything except the neck and head.” Elmi, who came to the U.S. from Somalia in the 1980s, recalls the oven-roasted goat of restaurants in Somalia, describing meat “falling apart” by the time it reached his table. Some pieces of his goat have that melting texture, some don’t. With many different parts of the animal in the mix, each bite varies. Look for the marrow inside split bones. Slurping it brings a rush of intense flavor. This goat is great for that flavor, a window into a far part of the world.
Editor's note: This story was originally published on August 4, 2018. It was updated on July 18, 2019.