Chow Bella

There's Great Ethiopian Food Hiding in Plain Sight on McDowell Road

Stewed chicken, house-made cheese, cabbage, and greens on injera.
Stewed chicken, house-made cheese, cabbage, and greens on injera. Chris Malloy
Despite an awning striped with the green, yellow, and red of Ethiopia's flag, Authentic Ethio African, a really tasty Ethiopian restaurant, is hiding in plain sight on 18th and McDowell streets.

The restaurant has four tables inside, three chairs each. It has a few outside under the awning. Almost none are occupied. The dearth of sit-down customers is because the restaurant is virtually a "ghost restaurant," an eatery that does strictly takeout and delivery.

There are no waiters. There are no menus on tables. Behind the pickup counter, owner Anduale Hassan works three tablets and a laptop to keep up with orders. (He'll give you a menu if you take a seat.)

click to enlarge The inside of the "ghost restaurant." - CHRIS MALLOY
The inside of the "ghost restaurant."
Chris Malloy
Many of the to-go orders are for clear bags stacked with thin, chestnut-colored pancakes. These are the ubiquitous Ethiopian flatbread known as injera. You tear off pieces, use them to pinch stews and vegetables, and bring them to your mouth. At Authentic Ethio African, Elsa Tiruneh (Hassan's wife) and Wyonshet Belay (his mom) make injera from barley, teff, and wheat. If you ask, they can do a gluten-free version from 100 percent teff.

Teff is a grain that grows well in the Ethiopian highlands. Like any country, Ethiopia's foodways are dictated by geography and circumstance. Ethiopia, for example, was colonized by Italy. A few seemingly vexing vestiges of Italian cuisine can be found in many Ethiopian restaurants. Authentic Ethio African is far from the only Ethiopian joint that serves spaghetti.

The heartbeat of Ethiopian cuisine, though, is injera.

Authentic Ethio offers numerous combo platters that feature preparations served atop injera, business as usual for an Ethiopian restaurant. Vegetable options include split peas, lentils, collards, and cabbage and carrots yellow with turmeric. Animal options include chicken, beef, and fish.

The chicken is dynamite, and not because the berbere in its sauce explodes with spice. Cardamom, garlic, and ginger are three of the various ingredients in Authentic Ethio's berbere, a rounded version of Ethiopia's pungent spice blend. The chicken stews for seven or eight hours. Morsels are fall-apart tender by the time they come, scarlet and sauce-drowned, on spongy injera perforated with holes like tripe.

click to enlarge Authentic Ethio African's McDowell Street storefront. - CHRIS MALLOY
Authentic Ethio African's McDowell Street storefront.
Chris Malloy
This kitchen has high talent. The injera is delicious. A side of fermented hot sauce has the heat profile and complexity of Gochujang but with a more muted weirdness. Tiruneh and Belay even make a fresh, tangy cheese from whole milk and vinegar.

Authentic Ethio African has been in business since 2012. Hassan has plans to expand, but not beyond building more outposts and sticking with his ghost concept. Authentic Ethio also sells uncooked Ethiopian specialties to go, food like coffee beans, lentils, flax seeds, turmeric, and other spices. The restaurant may be out of its fava bean sauce or coffee when you visit, and you shouldn't expect full-service comforts, but there is great food to be found under the striped awning.

Authentic Ethio African. 1740 East McDowell Road; 602-252-2286.
Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Sunday.
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy