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I’ve just had my first taste of Ethiopian food. For more than two years, I’ve lived a block away from what must be one of New York City’s oldest African restaurants, yet I’ve never been tempted through the door.
It took a global outcry over systemic racism and a personal desire to support local, black-owned businesses to get me to try dishes like miser wot, cabbage wot, and gomen wot. And now I can’t stop raving about them.
I’m a little late to the party. I told friends about this amazing find and they shrugged and said it had been their first date years ago. I have another friend who’s been urging me to try the place for months. And it was one of Voice food critic Robert Sietsema’s favorite restaurants in the city back in 2008.
Better late than never. My introduction to Queen of Sheba is a vegetarian sampler dish – small portions of lentils, chickpeas, beets, collard greens, string beans, carrots, all well spiced but not super spicy, and served with the signature gluten-free injera. This soft, pancake-style bread also acts as your spoon, since Queen of Sheba encourages a strictly no cutlery policy.
“We don’t use a fork and knife. So our utensils are our hand.”
“The restaurant experience comes from back home, from my mom’s kitchen,” explains owner and head chef Philipos Mengistu. “That’s how I started cooking. In Ethiopia, we do two things differently. First, we have our own staple food which you can’t find anywhere else. It’s called injera – sometimes people call it bread.
“And second, we don’t use a fork and knife. So our utensils are our hand.”
Philipos came to the US in 1990, and spent his first five years driving cabs and limos, before opening his first restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen in 1995. After splitting with his partners, they changed the name to Meske, but it is still in the same position on W47th St – 9th/10th Ave. He opened Queen of Sheba, on 10th Ave – 45th/46th St, with his wife Sara in 2001, and it will be their 20th anniversary in that location come January.
“The area has changed. It’s big change,” he says. “It was nothing. You see this building next to me? This was a parking lot. Nobody was coming over here. There were lots of prostitutes in this area. And when we came in the morning, there was lots of trash around.
“Ask the people who’ve lived around here more than 30 years. Everybody knew this place.”
“In 1995, when we opened the first restaurant on 47th St, between 42nd St and 57th St there were only two restaurants. Do you believe this? One was on the corner of 45th St [now Hellcat Annie’s]. It was a burger joint, a father and son. Then there was a fire and they moved. The other one was Meskera [now Meske]. Nobody was around here, Nobody.”
When he was looking for a place of his own, he was walking along 10th Ave, past what had been Mike’s, a neighborhood margarita joint. “Ask the people who’ve lived around here more than 30 years,” he says. “Everybody knew this place. So when the guy was gone, I saw this empty when I walked past and I said, ‘It’s the right spot.’ So I am here.”
He’s watched the new buildings soar around him, and survived where hundreds of businesses have not. But 2020 has hit him hard. “Not only because of Covid,” he says. “We were struggling because the rent alone is getting high. We were struggling – even January/February weren’t good months. And then, after Covid started, we were really suffering.”
His landlord gave him a break, he says – one month free, and a discount for May and June. “That’s why I am trying to get back on my feet by doing pickup and delivery. But that doesn’t go anywhere, and I can’t survive if I’m paying the guy the rent.”
He hopes the restaurant will be able to open by July 4, and he received PPP relief, “so I am not unemployed, my wife is not unemployed,” he says.
How can the neighborhood support him? “By ordering,” he smiles. “Just support your neighbor.”
For anyone unfamiliar with the menu, he suggests trying either the meat or vegetarian sampler dishes. And, yes, you can use your fork at home.
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