Abyssinian Restaurant

Abyssinian Cuisine

As I walked eagerly over to my destination, I began to feel the chill of the night air as the sun descended behind the clouds. The dusk from the evening sun just lightly illuminating the restaurant’s sign. Ethiopian Eritrean Abyssinian Cuisine. I was prompt to catch the owners of the restaurant at the opening.

While waiting down the pathway leading to the front of Abyssinian Cuisine for its open, I noticed a man mingling in close proximity to where I stood. Cliff, whom I later discovered in conversation worked as a dishwasher for Moses and Sophia Russom’s restaurant. As we both waited, occasionally peering through the front glass windows, for someone to unlock the front door - Cliff to begin his shift and myself to dive in to a serving of Ethiopian cuisine - Cliff noted to me that the owners are usually always on time. I glanced down at my phone to check the time. 5:05 pm. And as I lifted my head, I saw a woman appeared in the door turning over the CLOSED sign to OPEN. Cliff and I entered, Sophia greeting us with a warm smile and welcome as we passed through the doorway. The dining area is cozy with incandescent lamps mirroring either sides of the artfully ornamented walls.

Abyssinian Cuisine

I walked to the end of the restaurant; Abyssinian Cuisine, and took a seat around the bar. Just across from me, Sophia and Moses’ 7-year-old son sat doing his homework. Moments later, Moses came out of the kitchen and placed a menu in front of me. After perusing through the menu for quite some time I settled on an appetizer. Dibulbul Tibs, marinated meatballs mixed with onions, green peppers seasoned with herbs and spices. The entrée arrived on a bed of lettuce sliced tomato, and onion. The meatballs were tender and well-seasoned. The tomato lettuce and onion came together like a salad and were drizzled with a light vinaigrette pepper dressing.

Along with my appetizer, Moses brought out a sample of injera and cooked vegetables for me to try. Injera, is a traditional style Ethiopian flatbread. It is made from sourdough and takes on a spongy-like texture. It is a staple in Eritrean cuisine.
“Some places (In Ethiopia), it is eaten morning, noon, and dinner… once you like it, you crave for it”, says Moses.

Dibulbul Tibs, marinated meatballs served on a bed of romaine lettuce with diced tomatoes and onions.

Dibulbul Tibs, marinated meatballs served on a bed of romaine lettuce with diced tomatoes and onions.

He demonstrated to me the custom way to eat injera. Typically, it is eaten with the hands. A piece is torn off and then used to scoop up the meat or side it is being eaten with. A vast majority of the menu is served with injera, but entrees served with rice are available as well.

As I continued to finish up my appetizer, people began filling in Abyssinian Cuisine. A diverse flow of people came in and out. Although Ethiopian food is not very popular in the Hartford region of Connecticut, Moses says he gets a lot of new customers all the time. While the restaurant itself has been around for over 10 years it just reopened in December of 2018.

Over the last couple years, they experienced some issues with their heating system. Abyssinian Cuisine went two winters with no heat. Just last winter, one of the pipes burst, flooding the restaurant and caused its temporary closing. During this time, Moses shared they lost a lot of customers.

His wife Sofia does a majority restaurant’s cooking along with two other chefs. Their family also helping out when needed. It was his brother-in-law to whom he modeled his restaurant after. His brother in law owns his own pizza restaurant out in California.

After migrating to the U.S., and living in Connecticut for only two years, Moses and Sophia opened their restaurant, in the hopes of introducing the Eritrean culture and food to America. Moses’s family hails from the Tigrigna tribe in Northern Ethiopia (Eritrea). There are 9 different ethnic groups in Eritrea, with 9 different languages. Tigrigna is among the 9 ethnic groups shared Moses to me.

Sprinkled throughout the restaurant, cultural artifacts, sculptures and paintings reflect their homeland and different tribes of Ethiopia. The restaurant’s name, as Moses explained is derived from the ancient name for the northern region of Ethiopia, Abyssinia.

Yesega Alicha Be Dnish, seasoned beef, carrots, and potatoes served with mashed lentils and steamed cabbage over injera (Ethiopian style flatbread).

After finishing my appetizer, I had decided I would return on another day to try a full-sized entrée. On my second visit, I had a comrade of mine accompany me. I came this time on a less busy day.
I ordered the Yesega Alicha Be Dnish, beef and potatoes cooked with vegetable oil, garlic, carrots, onions and green peppers served with injera of course.

Yesega Alicha Be Dnish, seasoned beef, carrots, and potatoes served with mashed lentils and steamed cabbage over injera (Ethiopian style flatbread).

My friend ordered the Doro Wot. Moses says this is favorite dish on the menu. The Doro wot is tender chicken marinated in lemon, sautéed in seasoned butter stewed in red pepper sauce flavored with onions, garlic and ginger root. It is served with Abyssinian homemade cottage cheese, a boiled egg and injera.

As we ate, Moses explained some of what goes into the food. The Doro Wot, uses a special Awaze sauce. There are 16 different spices used in the awaze sauce.

“It’s what gives the flavor of the food”, Moses exclaimed. “Back home, normally at the house, you have somebody who knows how many of what kind of (spices) to combine”.

This spice mixture is actually brought back from Ethiopia and is completely organic. For the awaze sauce to come out just right, one must know exactly what amount of spices to use, otherwise other flavors can become overpowering.

Doro Wot, spiced chicken with hard-boiled eggs served over injera (Ethiopian style flatbread).

Doro Wot, spiced chicken with hard-boiled eggs served over injera (Ethiopian style flatbread).
Baklava, a popular sweet North African dessert

After our entrées, we finished up with dessert – Baklava. Baklava is a pastry, layered with walnuts and syrup. When it arrived, I sliced my fork in and was surprised to find that it was a rather thick texture almost hardened even. It is very sweet, sure to curb any sugar craving.

Baklava, a popular sweet North African dessert.

Whether sweet or savory, there was definitely no lack of zest in Abyssinian Cuisine. For Moses, his dream for the restaurant is to be just that - “To grow…and have the best Eritrean food and flavor.”

Moses Russom, owner of Abyssinian Cuisine Restaurant.

Visit:
Abyssinian Restaurant
533 Farmington Ave, Hartford, CT 06105
(860) 218-2231

Hours:

Monday 5:00pm – 9:30pm
Tuesday 5:00pm – 9:30pm
Wednesday 5:00pm – 9:30pm
Thursday 5:00 pm – 9:30pm
Friday 5:00pm – 9:30pm
Saturday 5:00pm – 10pm
Sunday CLOSED

Casablanca Moroccan Cuisine

Casablanca Moroccan Cuisine

It has a very unassuming exterior. If you were in the area, you may stop at the Starbucks on the opposite side or the Raising Cane’s next to it. Perhaps you would just drive by the huge eyesore that is the Chase drive-through ATM next to it, and never notice its diamond-in-the-rough neighbor – “Casablanca Moroccan Cuisine”. But that is how hidden gems are – hidden in plain sight, humble and inconspicuous.

Casablanca Moroccan Cuisine
Casablanca Moroccan Cuisine

The first time I walked in, I wasn’t sure of what to expect. Outside the restaurant, a few men were sitting on metallic patio furniture having hookah and tea. A traditional samovar sat on their table, along with two glass teacups stuffed with fresh mint leaves to the brim. Walking past them I entered an elongated room with orange walls and modest decoration reminiscent of Persian and Moorish times. A tiny door chime rang my entrance and its sound was quickly replaced loud Arabic music playing on the LCD in the top left corner of this softly lit space. Towards the front, a small alcove displayed some dusty paraphernalia from distant lands unknown behind a wooden hostess stand. At the back, a small refrigerator stood displaying all kinds of soda.

Basic, comfortable and warm – I thought to myself as I took a seat. Two minutes later, the owner Khalid Boujaidi, walked out of the kitchen and greeted me asking what I would like to eat. I asked him to get me his best dish – and I have never looked back ever since.

Casablanca Moroccan Cuisine

Like his restaurant, Khalid is a simple man – modest and unpretentious. When you meet him the first time, he seems like a man of few words who lets his food do the talking for him. But become a regular (and for Khalid that is anyone who visits his restaurant more than three times), and you will have earned yourself a friend as well as a gifted chef.

Casablanca Moroccan Cuisine
Casablanca Moroccan Cuisine

Khalid’s chicken Tagine is now one of my favorite meals, the true definition of comfort, soul food – prepared fresh every day with rich, wholesome ingredients and painstaking attention. His menu is minimal and easy to navigate. To start up an appetite you can order some robust falafel or hummus. If you are in the mood for something light, there are salads and wraps. But for the real taste of his cooking, order one of the entrées with saffron rice and salad. Round off your meal with some special Moroccan tea.

Casablanca Moroccan Cuisine

A few weeks ago, I sat down with Khalid, rather, I stood in his kitchen as he prepared his masterpiece Tagine, to ask him how he decided to become a chef and ended up as the owner of this little Moroccan gem in the middle of San Antonio, Texas.

‘It’s not been easy. When I came here at first, it was very hard. For the first three months, I just wanted to go back. My wife would keep asking why we moved. I kept questioning my decision, I wondered how I would succeed, what I would do. I don’t like remembering those days too much. It wasn’t easy’. He shakes his head as his hands chop the vegetables almost automatically for the side salad that goes with the Tagine.

Khalid’s kitchen is systematic and functional. He has distinct corners (and stoves) for rice, meat, vegetables, and his tea. This ensures that his service always runs like a well-oiled engine. At any time you will find at least two kettles of his special Moroccan mint tea brewing in the kitchen. There is a large salad bar that doubles up as his chopping and assembling workspace as he lowers a granite slab over it. In one seemingly forgotten corner, there are two mini microwaves stacked atop each other, collecting dust. Khalid admits that they are almost never used since all his food is made fresh, to order.

Casablanca Moroccan Cuisine

The outfit opened its doors in 2013 and Khalid has been running the whole show on his own. The one-man front means that his patrons may need to wait a bit longer than usual on busy nights, but as fresh as his food comes out, it is always worth the wait. He takes immense pride in his process and it shows. Many restaurants of this size sometimes fail to run efficiently and get enough business, let alone maintain a stellar sanitation record. Moroccan Cuisine boasts a 98% Health Score from its latest inspection, displayed proudly next to the hostess stand inside the restaurant.

Like many immigrant chefs, Khalid’s cooking is laden with nostalgia and remembrance of his homeland – Casablanca in Morocco – where he grew up. He confesses that when he decided to open up this place, he knew there was nothing else he could name it, it had to carry a piece of Casablanca – where his journey began.

His earliest memory in the kitchen is when he was just 10 years old – the youngest among his siblings – always a keen helper in the kitchen. ‘My mother knew how much I enjoyed cooking and saw that I was good at it, so she would let me help at times. My father was away a lot on business and when he would come back, sometimes I would cook for them. They always enjoyed my food’.

Even though his commitment to the craft continued into young adulthood, Khalid explored many other professions before becoming a full-time chef. In his late teenage years, he ran a business importing and exporting clothing brands into his country from Europe. He even tried his hand at fitness training for a while. During this time he would travel to Europe frequently. That is where the amalgamation of different cultures and the possibilities it held enamored him.

‘But wherever I was, I always loved to cook for myself, somehow I never wanted anyone else to cook for me’. He tells me as he shakes his special in-house dressing for the salad in a steel flask – a mixture of Mediterranean herbs, olive oil, and lime juice.

Casablanca Moroccan Cuisine

The salad for his special Tagine was ready. He arranged a small heap on a plain white plate next to him and then in two take away containers as well. Then he scooped a few spoonfuls of his fragrant saffron rice next to the greens. Here he asked me to move closer and smell the delicious aroma of the steaming rice as he plated them: ‘Notice how every grain is separate from the other? This is how you know that your rice is perfectly cooked’ he said proudly.
Khalid made his way from Europe to America in 2005, when he finally moved to San Antonio. This is where he decided to start a new life by zoning in on his lifelong passion – cooking. It started off by taking a few cooking classes and then joining a local French restaurant in the area. French cooking is a big departure from what he makes at his own restaurant but for Khalid, it was important to learn the best techniques in the industry so he could turn his passion into a hard-earned skill. He worked as a line cook and then a chef for nearly a decade at the French place, before finally taking the leap to set up his own restaurant. ‘I knew I had moved here (USA) to build something of my own. To make use of the opportunities available here. I was not going to work under someone forever, even though he was a great boss. That was not why I came to America.’

If on a weekday night, you came into his eatery and found it relatively empty, it will be because Khalid has been packing away his glorious food in take away containers long before you arrived. On a busy day, he can get as many as 30 take away orders. His location in the city’s medical center makes it a popular spot for students and health professionals looking for wholesome food on the go. By night, the restaurant transforms into a tea and hookah café as well for shisha enthusiasts because it is among the few in the area that stays open until 2 am.

Casablanca Moroccan Cuisine

But I was here for the star of the show: the Tagine meat. The Tagine is a clay or ceramic container characteristic of Moroccan cuisine, shaped like a pyramid that is used to cook this style of meat. It helps to trap the steam inside so that the meat becomes amazingly tender and flavorful as it cooks. For me, he plated a juicy, tender piece of chicken on the bed of rice. For the takeaway containers, he approached a second pot and pulled out a scrumptious lamb shank. He finished off the plating with a few drippings of his special white sauce, a blend of sautéed chickpeas and onions, and finally some olives.

Casablanca Moroccan Cuisine

I sat down to eat and everything on this plate complimented everything else perfectly. The saffron rice is creamy and distinctly fluffy. The meat is tender and falls off the bone effortlessly and the fresh salad compliments the richness of the meat and rice.

After the delicious meal, I poured myself a cup of Khalid’s warm and hearty mint tea as I marveled at the care and joy he put in cooking and serving his food. I asked him to share what it was that he liked most about the process of cooking? He glanced into the distance and smiled, shaking his head, ‘It is just that I love it. You cannot explain it. It is like Love, how do you explain Love?’

Casablanca Moroccan Cuisine

Chef Khalid

Visit:
Casablanca Moroccan Cuisine
7959 Fredericksburg Rd Ste 215
San Antonio, TX 78229
Phone number (210) 549-4031

Author: Qudsia A. Rana - https://medium.com/@qudsia.rana

Merhaba Shawarma Restaurant

Merhaba Shawarma

On the morning of November 14th, 2018, Manna Samuel arrives at Merhaba Shawarma four hours before it opens to begin her day. She readies the restaurant for the shift ahead, preparing for the next twelve hours that she will carry on her shoulders alone. Merhaba Shawarma is quite literally a one-woman show.

This rainy morning, however, is unlike those that have come before. The atmosphere is bright, happy, and full of excitement. On this particular morning, the UN unanimously voted to lift the nine-year-long sanctions that had been imposed on Eritrea, Manna’s home country. A celebration of food, dance, and patriotism lie ahead. But before the festivities begin, Manna commits herself to Merhaba Shawarma as she has for the past six years.

“I came here as a refugee in 1983,” Manna says, and adds, “When refugees were not famous.” Her country, Eritrea, has been an area of conflict from the 1950s until July 2018. When she first came to America she worked in the banking industry, but in 2012 when fear of being laid off came into view, she bought Merhaba Shawarma from the restaurants previous owners and learned to cook Mediterranean food. “[The previous owners] trained us, but never gave us any of their recipes,” Manna admits, “So my friend and I had to come up with our own.”

Merhaba is an Arabic greeting that means “hello.” It’s commonly used in Eritrea. Merhaba Shawarma invites guests into that welcoming circle of a warm-climate culture. Manna explains that some patrons really care about customer service; they want a familiar greeting and genuine care. Others find themselves there for the food alone, “They could care less what you say,” Manna laughs. In her line of work, it’s necessary to read people when they walk through the door, a skill she learned long ago banking.

Merhaba Shawarma is located in what has come to be known as the most diverse square mile in America: Clarkston, Georgia. Clarkston became a refugee resettlement area in the 1990s and since that time hundreds of unique cultures have come to call the small town home. It’s a town that does things in a slightly unorthodox fashion, a little messy, and because of that is just a little more refreshing than your average suburban setting. Those who know Clarkston best, know that it is more of a community than a town- people are bound more by their relationships than by their shared zip codes.

Manna’s restaurant is not a large building. It sits on the corner of an intersection in the small downtown area. The parking is sparse, but many customers in the community walk there on foot. Despite serving Mediterranean food, Eritrea is paid homage to with the colors of the restaurant: blue, green, and red like the Eritrean flag. Indoors there are five small, crowded tables, a cooler full of drinks, and a bar behind which spools of meat are roasting. Despite the weather outdoors, Merhaba Shawarma is always warm. The walls are decorated with homemade art, thank you letters, and a sign that reads- “never trust a skinny chef,” while Manna, petite and slender, stands underneath shaving meat. One piece that stands out on the wall is a gift from a local music school. Students and community members painted a map of the world and added different words for “hello” to represent the various cultures of Clarkston.

At Merhaba Shawarma there’s usually a line. It’s customary to order first and Manna will bring the food to you when it’s ready. You eat, enjoy, grab a drink from the cooler, and pay on your way out. Manna recommended the Gyro wrap with Taziki sauce, her personal favorite, which we ordered. She also added that the Chicken Shawarma is the most popular dish. I had the Falafel wrap.

While preparing our food Manna yells out from behind the bar, “Do you want it spicy?” We say yes. Everything Manna makes is delicious. The spicy sauce added to any dish gives it a nice kick, but never too overwhelming. Each bite is filled with meat or, in my case, falafel and a generous amount of veggies, all wrapped in a fluffy grilled pita. These wraps are the comfort food of Clarkston. They’re not too exotic, not too spicy, and not too expensive. The seasoning is fragrant and all dishes are made to order. Walking inside and smelling the spices, warm bread, and roasting meat makes your stomach rumble in anticipation.

Manna Samuel

Not everything sold at Merhaba Shawarma is a wrap; most have a plate equivalent that comes with salad and fries or rice. You can also find plenty of sides ranging from stuffed grape leaves to hummus to baklava. Manna also serves Fuul, an Egyptian stew made of fava beans and perhaps the only dish Eritrea can claim on the menu.

“It’s not the food we make at home,” Manna says when I ask about the menu, but she adds that it’s a good fit for the community of Clarkston. I asked Manna if she would open an Eritrean restaurant if she had the opportunity and quickly she replies, “No.” Others have tried before and struggled to maintain their businesses. Her Mediterranean food is what attracts, in Manna’s words, “the refugee, the immigrant, and the American.” She wouldn’t want to market anything else.

Manna believes the food she serves at Merhaba Shawarma brings all walks of life through the door. The restaurant truly is a community hub. During our time there we saw college students, nurses, business professionals, and locals come through the door. An Eritrean grandmother came just to sit, not eat, with Manna and when Eritrean music started to play the two began dancing in the small kitchen space. College students spoke of their travels around the world. An American businessman came in and greeted Manna warmly, hugging her before ordering.

Merhaba Shawarma
Merhaba Shawarma

There we sat, Manna the refugee, my second-generation American companion, and myself. I asked Manna what she wanted families like each of ours to know and she told me, “Refugees are not monsters. We are hardworking and we have to do what we came here to do: be safe and work hard. It is not easy to establish yourself here as a refugee.” Manna admits she never felt uncomfortable with her position, until two years ago. The change in the American political climate has shifted Manna’s perspective as well. She described that nowadays you never know who will walk through your door- they may feel one way about your food, but have a very different opinion about your right to live in their country. Still, Manna greets everyone with a kind “Merhaba.” You would never know she had any fear.Now, more than ever, it is necessary for conversations with people like Manna Samuel to take place. Food brings people together. It teaches us about our families, our neighbors and the owners of our favorite corner restaurants. Food reminds us that we are not all so different from one another, and as Manna displays at Merhaba Shawarma, it is a gateway to community.

Visit:

Merhaba Shawarma
4188 E Ponce de Leon Ave,
Clarkston, GA 30021, US

About the Author

Laura is a Maine native who now lives in Atlanta. She loves exploring the different the stories food has to tell about culture, family, and life itself. You can find her on Instagram at: @elska

Zoma Restaurant

Zoma Restaurant

In an increasingly fast-paced world, restauranteur Zeleke Belete of Zoma cherishes the Ethiopian tradition of communal eating. These customs create a welcoming space, where food is lovingly made and traditions kept vibrant. Zoma Restaurant boasts bright colors, sounds, and scents reminiscent of Zeleke’s home. Ethiopian music plays on a screen in the background, showcasing the elaborate dance routines of the country’s various tribes. Oil paintings of figures in traditional dress line the soft pastel green walls.

Zoma Restaurant
Zoma Restaurant

Zoma Restaurant

Lunch

For the lunch special, I selected the misir kik, a spicy red lentil stew, and the alicha wat, a mild beef stew. Both came on a bed of injera, the sour spongy bread that forms the foundation of each dish. A wreath of injera rolls surrounds the two mounds. The hearty portion satisfies both my greed and desire for leftovers. The first bite of the beef stew, pinched between a ravenously torn piece of injera, is pure savory warmth. Caramelized onion, ginger, and garlic permeate the tender beef cubes and infuse into the injera base. My first bite of lentils is a fiery hit of flavor, an instant exhilarating rush that brings sweat to my nose and upper lip. Only after tasting the lentils did I fully appreciate the milder, sweeter notes of the beef stew.

Ethiopian food uses lots of onions. Zeleke smiles, recounting the shock on distributors’ faces when they see the fifteen to twenty bags of onions he and his family purchase each week.

During his trips back to Ethiopia, Zeleke and his family stock up on organic spices from home. Spices are the essence of Ethiopian cuisine: among them, red pepper, cardamom, ginger, garlic, and turmeric in different combinations create complex warmth. The order of spices is essential in shaping the flavor profile of each dish. Zeleke explains that when you add garlic to the beef stew, it makes all the difference in the balance of flavors.

Injera is an Ethiopian restaurant’s barometer of success. The spongy starch is made of teff, an Ethiopian grain, and a unique fermentation process creates the signature sour flavor and tiny holes on the surface. Like sourdough, injera requires a starter, or a base culture of yeast, flour, and water used to flavor and ferment a bread product. Unfamiliar to many Western flavor palates, sourness in injera is embraced - in fact, the more sour, the better. Getting the flavor and texture is a finicky chemistry, so when a restaurant finds the right formula, it’s like striking gold. Zeleke shared that the starter for Zoma’s injera came an Ethiopian restaurant in Columbus, and the recipe for their injera is a trade secret. “I wouldn’t give away the recipe for a million dollars.”

In addition to their food offerings, every Sunday the restaurant hosts a coffee ceremony. Zoma roasts their own beans, adding additional depth of flavor with cardamom and cloves. Ethiopian coffee has a concentrated intensity and aroma foreign to many US coffee drinkers who have grown accustomed to sugar-loaded, venti brews. Its portions are served in small cups, inviting drinkers to savor each sip. “Back home, if your neighbor hears you setting up for coffee, you know they’ll be over in a matter of minutes to pay you a visit.” Zoma’s coffee ceremony hearkens back to the coffee shops that line the streets of Addis Ababa, inviting passersby to sit and share a moment of their day.

Zoma Restaurant

Zeleke

After applying for the immigrant visa lottery, Zeleke immigrated to the US in 2005 with his wife and family. Together with his wife, sister, and mother in law, they opened up Zoma in December 2016, taking the name from Zeleke’s mother’s birthplace. Zeleke’s roots are in the countryside, about 180 kilometers outside of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.

For Zeleke and his family, hard work and long hours are essential. Language barriers, cultural differences, and social isolation were among the initial challenges Zeleke faced when he came to America. But as long as one is willing to put in the work, he believes success will follow.

For new immigrants, he emphasizes the importance of hard work and persistence. He recalls the initially struggling to learn English, but this attitude pushed him to improve. “Some people are afraid to speak English because they think people will judge them. I don’t care – I still try. How else do you learn?”

However, his best advice to new arrivals is to “know your limits;” in other words, to respect the boundaries of one’s physical and mental abilities. “You must not lose sight of family, relationships – the important things in life.”

Zeleke is hopeful for the future. Coming up on the two-year anniversary of its debut, Zoma has captivated locals looking for authentic Ethiopian fare. Zeleke plans to expand the restaurant and add additional traditional seating arrangements to accommodate more guests. Here at Zoma, his philosophy in life and in his food is to emphasize quality over quantity: “if you take care of your customers, they’ll come back.”

About the Author:

Valerie is a proud daughter of immigrants and she believes food is a powerful way to bring people together. She is a nurse based in the greater Cleveland area, and is looking forward to more meals and insightful conversations. Her email is valerie.bai4@gmail.com.

 

Visit:

Zoma Restaurant
2240 Lee Road Cleveland, OH 44118.
Phone: 216-465-3239
Telephone: 216.465.3239

Mrs B’s Reggae Cafe

Mrs B’s Reggae Cafe — Jamaican cuisine to delight every palate
Marilyn Forsythe / Chef Neville Forsythe

First Visit to the Restaurant

The intoxicating aroma of fresh herbs and pungent spices waft through the kitchen door to greet me as I step into the doorway of Mrs B’s Reggae Cafe on Broad Street. Within a few seconds, a waitress with a warm smile said hello and invited me to find a seat wherever I liked. I looked around the room and noticed a handful of customers seated at a few of the tables, nicely arranged inside the modestly spaced building. One side of the wall was painted with a mural showcasing a relaxing spot on the beach in the Caribbean.

Mrs B’s Reggae Cafe
Caribbean Mural

I found a table with four chairs by the window and made my way there. Once seated, I gazed outside and smiled, feeling content to be inside this warm café with incredible aromas reminiscent of my grandmother’s kitchen and away from the busy city street bustling with traffic. When the waitress came by to take my order, I was still trying to decide what I wanted to eat. Naturally, my first thought was to go for the jerk chicken. So I asked the waitress whose name I later learned was ‘Zina,’ the best way to combine my order of jerk chicken, seasoned cabbage and rice and peas.  With her recommendation, I was set and went for the quarter jerk chicken entree with an option of two sides; cabbage and rice and peas.

Mrs B’s Reggae Cafe
Jerk Chicken with Cabbage, Rice, and Peas

My meal came out within minutes of placing the order. It was delightful to see. My eyes feasted on the colorful array of food so artfully arranged on the plate, it looked more like an entrée one would enjoy at a fine dining restaurant than a dish from a casual bistro like this one. The fragrance from the food was absolutely intoxicating for my senses. I began with the jerk chicken and Oh my! The chicken was moist, succulent and flavorful. It had a nice, spicy and smoky taste.  Next, I was ready to sample the cabbage.  It was not at all what I expected. I was so thrilled by the taste of fresh herbs, light spices and the crispiness of the vegetable. I had never had cabbage like this before and would certainly add this to my list of favorite dishes. The rice and peas had all the right spices and was quite yummy.  I had also requested a sampling of the jerk marinade – the extra, extra, extra hot. The waitress had already informed me about the specialness of the sauce. She told me the sauce is only served upon special request because of the nature of its ingredients and the level of spicyness it holds.  I told her that I could handle it. And I added the sauce to my dish. For those who enjoy the next level of spicyness, you’ll love this sauce.  For all others, trust me when I say the sauce delivers on its name.  I kept my cold glass of water close by and sipped as I ate my meal. It was just what my palate was craving.

Mrs B’s Reggae Cafe
Handwritten Specialties Menu

The Genesis of the Restaurant

Three and a half years and counting… who knew the genesis of Mrs. B’s Reggae Café really began with serving up traditional rum cakes?

“It all started with the rum cake. I was selling the traditional Jamaican rum cakes at the Chattanooga market and working another temporary office job,” Marilyn recalls.

The traditional Jamaican rum cake is a popular dessert enjoyed by families during holidays and other special occasions. It is a rich, fruit-laden confection soaked in a number of liquors that may include port wine or even stout, but always include rum. Core ingredients also include butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla, nutmeg and few other spices. The addition of alcohol not only flavors this seasonal treat, but also preserves it for weeks. It’s enjoyed with a cup of coffee, tea or a customary glass of rum.  it’s a delicacy that has deep cultural and historical roots for Jamaicans.

The rum cakes Marilyn was offering at the market were selling quickly and customers were requesting more. That’s when Marilyn and her husband, Neville began researching local sites where they could not only offer desserts with rum cakes as the main attraction, but also coffee, special cocktails, sandwiches and much more.

They began scouting local sites in the heart of the city, areas with reasonable traffic and accessible to both locals and tourists. They found a spot on Broad Street just on the outskirts of St. Elmo that had housed a few different restaurants over the years, eateries that just didn’t quite catch on with the locals, so the building was up for lease. The Forsythes expressed an interest in leasing the building but had to wait until a prospective client bowed out.

“The building was up for lease and I called the property owner and he said, ‘Oh, I wish you had called me sooner.’ I have somebody looking at it. if things don’t work out I’ll let you know,” Marilyn explained.

And as luck would have it two weeks later, the Forsythes got the phone call they had been waiting for. The property manager accepted their offer to lease the building and they moved forward with their plans to get the site ready for opening day. Mrs. B’s Reggae Café, Chattanooga’s only authentic Jamaican food destination, was born on June 19, 2014.

Meet the Restaurateur

‘Amazing food’ has always been front and center for this Chattanooga restaurateur whose roots hail from Jamaica, some thirty years ago.  Marilyn Forsythe and her husband Chef Neville have called the Scenic City home for over three decades. They have three adult children and one grandson.

However, the restaurant is now their full time ‘baby.’ Chef Neville works seven days a week and his day in the restaurant kitchen begins at 9 a.m. and lasts until close to midnight. Marilyn handles the business side of things along with creating those unforgettable rum cakes. She begins her baking prep work in the early morning and has servers that setup the restaurant dining room in preparation for serving lunch and dinner. During the week, they open up Wednesday through Friday for lunch at 11 a.m.  and close briefly at 3 p.m.  Then, they open again for dinner at 4:30 p.m. until closing time at 10:00 p.m.  Saturday it’s a 12 p.m. start until 10:00 p.m. Sunday’s hours are 12 p.m. until 8 p.m.

Quality ingredients and a global culinary expertise are the common thread for the couple behind the cuisine at Mrs B’s. Chef Neville got his start as a Navy cook many years ago and fine tuned his culinary training at the Culinary Institute of America.  Also growing up in a household where good food was an everyday occurrence was just a bonus.

“Being a Navy cook was part of my roots, and it’s not just opening cans and cooking that way. I went to school and sat in a classroom and took tests to learn how to cook, keeping cultural and dietary requirements in mind,” Neville said

“You’re cooking for hundreds of people several times a day (referring to his years of service in the Navy.) It was fascinating and wonderful. Then what I learned at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) was fine tuning my cooking style. What I do now on a daily basis is to take those experiences and add my special touch.”

His wife, Marilyn who attended Shortwood Teacher’s College in Jamaica, also shares a similar background where excellent tasting food and quality ingredients go hand in hand. She still remembers as a young girl, helping her mother gather organic produce for cooking.

“I remember when I was growing up and helping my mom cook. She had a vegetable garden and she would send me out to get fresh herbs that she would put in the pot right away. And she didn’t just cook Jamaican dishes or cuisine. She also loved to try different dishes as well. She wouldn’t hesitate to grab the cookbook and try something new at least one day out of the week. That would be the day that I am flying home from school to sample her cooking. She would make these meatballs and gravy, green beans and her macaroni and cheese was out of this world.  When she makes the traditional ackee (fruit) and saltfish (traditional Jamaican dish), it’s so good. ”

With the bar set pretty high by their parents cooking, the Forsythes say creating amazing dishes with quality ingredients became part of their DNA. That’s another reason why they make their dishes from scratch. It’s a labor of love says Chef Neville but he loves it. Neville is mentoring a young chef in training who helps him with some of the kitchen preparations. He shares his culinary knowledge with him – helping to grow the next generation of dynamic chefs.

“I have a wonderful young man who works with me. He’s been with us for a year. I give him reading assignments. I recently loaned him a book called ‘How to read a French fry,’ it’s a cookbook that focuses on the science of cooking.”

For this restaurateur the science of cooking is essential to how he approaches his cooking which translates into reinventing dishes and experimenting with flavors and textures. Chef Neville travels around the country and brings back new and fresh ideas which he uses to create different dishes and provide diners with a real distinctive experience. With that, customers can expect to see innovative and unique dishes on the restaurant menu from time to time. Marilyn says customers have been very receptive to trying something new.

“We try to introduce folks to different and unique flavors. Too many people think Jamaican food is just jerk chicken or jerk pork and hot peppers. There’s so much more to it. We did a dinner last summer at the restaurant. We invited people to come in and try prepared dishes similar to what you eat at the home of a Jamaican family.  People enjoyed the experience. It was a family style dinner with everyone sitting around a big table having conversation.

The Cuisine

Every dish is made from scratch including the beef patties which is a staple at a Jamaican restaurant. Chef Neville makes the dough and rolls them out one at a time. Cooking to please varied palates takes years of experience and planning. And Jamaican cuisine can be different for every family. Some may like it hot and others may prefer a milder flavor.  There are vegetarian options and gluten free offerings as well.

Chef Neville’s Special

Let’s explore some of Chef Neville’s special creations. A visit to this unique Jamaican restaurant is not complete without a sampling of a few of Chef  Neville’s special appetizers which includes the award winning Lollipop Jerk Wings and the Reggae Rolls. For those adventurous types, a taste of De Voodoo Chicken will make your dining experience here truly unforgettable. A word of caution — it is not for the faint of heart! Take my word for it!

The Reggae Rolls which can be great for special occasions, is a play on the Jamaican reggae theme, they resemble spring rolls and are filled with various vegetables including carrots then deep fried. When you bite into it, you’ll hear a crunch sound and the flavor is full and robust.

Then there are the Lollipop Wings which are regular full size wings, cut with the bones sticking out. These are also great for parties. Chef Neville was first introduced to the idea of lollipop wings while studying at the Culinary Institute of America. He decided to bring it to Chattanooga and added his special touch. Now It’s  become quite a hit with customers.  And it’s no wonder–the wings have won many awards.

Mrs B’s Reggae Cafe
Lollipop Wings & Reggae Rolls

The Jerk Stuffed Burger is a whole lot of burger with a flavorful experience. It can easily be named the best darn burger in town. They’ve got my son’s vote and he has had many a burger both near and far.

The process for making the burger begins with a 10.5 ounce ground beef, which is then seasoned with various spices and then mixed in with chopped jerk chicken. It takes 20 minutes to prepare. It is served on a fresh bun with lettuce and tomatoes plus a side of grilled potatoes garnished with rosemary. If you’re in a hurry, the restaurateur will gladly recommend another dish. But it is worth the wait, if you can spare the time.

Mrs B’s Reggae Cafe
Jerk Stuffed Burger

One of the restaurant’s most popular dishes –De Voodoo Chicken- first appeared to Chef Neville in a dream.

“I woke up one morning and it came to me. At the time, I had no idea what it was going to be, but I knew it would be something special.  I thought about it, and drew from my culinary experiences, and then I knew what I wanted and just began creating the dish.”

What’s in the dish?  Boneless skinless chicken breasts, sautéed onions, bell peppers, hot peppers (scotch bonnet or habanera peppers – they use whichever one is available) shallots and garlic. The dish is plated with rice, sliced pineapples and fresh coconut, these help with the flavor and softens the pepper a little bit. According to Chef Neville, this dish has become their number one seller. The term Voodoo is not always warmly embraced because of its religious connotations but in this particular case, the name adds an element of mystery to the restaurant menu options.

And oh the cabbage, the cabbage is a must.  Customers rave about this side dish which takes just minutes to prepare. It takes four minutes altogether. First, you boil the cabbage in salted water for two to three minutes. Then cool it off and when a customer places the order, it is then sautéed with garlic and fresh herbs so it remains nice and crispy, not overcooked. It’s like no other cabbage dish.

The drinks are refreshing, colorful and very tasty. There are a variety of non-alcoholic beverages along with beer. And if you are in the mood for wine, the restaurant has a partnership with Imbibe, a local wine and spirits shop – customers can contact Imbibe for a recommendation on the best wine selections to pair with Jamaican dishes offered at Mrs B’s.  Since Mrs. B’s doesn’t offer wine, they invite customers to bring their own and just note there will be a small corkage fee.

Mrs B’s Reggae Cafe
The Infamous Voodoo Chicken

Making the rum cake

This is Marilyn’s specialty. She has been making rum cakes for as long as she can remember. The signature traditional rum cake is sweet, succulent and delicious. It’s so delightful that customers from California to Canada and Jamaica order them regularly, sometimes by the dozen.

“It takes a good four hours to make, between prepping, mixing and baking.  When you do something for so long you start to figure out different little things about it – the science behind it. I’m realizing certain things are going to make it even better and better. I have customers who tell me these cakes are so good and I say wait until you taste the next one.”

Staying connected and much more

Staying connected is part of what keeps Marilyn busy, besides taking care of customers. She’s made sure that Mrs. B’s Reggae Café customers can remain engaged on social media.  The restaurant has a following on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.  The Yelp reviews were organically established. Customers began posting reviews after their dining experience at Mrs B’s which have been overwhelmingly positive.  And so the Forsythes let it continue, grateful for grassroots effort which gives them insight on feedback from customers.

You can connect with and follow Mrs. B’s Reggae Café on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. A new partnership with Uber Eats set to launch in mid-March of this year will offer food delivery for customers, which the restaurateurs hope will give the business a much needed boost.

Website traffic could also see a bump. Customers can order a variety of Chef Neville’s special sauce creations online. There’s always an option to call the restaurant for a more personalized service. They can package several at a time and minimize shipping costs.

There is a steady stream of customers but like any business, there’s always room for growth.  Catering has provided some additional business. In fact, the restaurant receives requests for catering parties and special events from time to time. However, they limit their catering orders so they can focus their attention on restaurant customers — ensuring that each customer that walks through the restaurant doors enjoys a unique dining experience. When the Forsythes do agree to cater an event, they first invite the client to come in to discuss their catering needs. This allows them to make that personal connection which is such a part of their warm Jamaican hospitality.

Mrs B’s Reggae Cafe
Jamaican International Soccer Team’s Signatures From Their Visit

Words of wisdom from Mrs B’s for those trying Jamaican food for the first time

Just come in with an open mind…

The first time people come into the restaurant, Marilyn Forsythe says she tells customers to start with the most popular dish from Jamaica which for many is jerk chicken or jerk pork. Other well known cuisine are rice and peas and curry goat.

“Start with those basics then taste and explore other dishes when you visit again.  If you live here in town, it means you’ll be back again, because the restaurant offers a wide variety of dishes that will please just about any palate. Not everything is hot but everything is flavorful.”

“I had a couple come in one time and ask me, what is the best thing on the menu? And I said, everything is amazing. I’m not just saying that. You have to decide to try a dish and then the next time venture out and try something else,” she said.

An open invitation

You’re invited to embark upon a unique dining adventure… Chef Neville and Marilyn promise an unforgettable dining experience where quality ingredients and amazing food will bring you back again and again.

Mrs B’s Reggae Café is unassuming. When you walk in, you’ll take in the view quickly and will probably briefly gaze upon the mural painted by a local artist featured on the right hand side of the wall, showcasing a Caribbean theme. The scene paints a picture of a relaxing spot along the beach on the coast. If you happen to visit during the evening, you will most likely hear the upbeat tempo of Jamaican music playing in the background.

Expect the light hearted laughter and bubbly warm personalities of the restaurant owners and wait staff to make you feel truly at home. Yeah mon!!!

Mrs B’s Reggae Cafe

Visit Mrs. B’s Reggae Cafe

3103 Broad St, Chattanooga, TN 37408

Phone: (423) 702-5808

About the Author:
Chinyere’s WordPress Blog
Chinyere Ubamadu is a marketing communications professional and freelance writer in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She is a food enthusiast who enjoys global cuisine and traveling. Her travels and foodie adventures have taken her to four continents. When she’s not applying her creativity and problem solving skills to meet business needs, she’s challenging herself hiking, running or practicing yoga.