Three things that are practically unheard of in South Florida: courteous drivers, snow and Ethiopian restaurants.
Thankfully, Awash Ethiopian in Miami Gardens has come along to rectify the surprising scarcity of one of the world’s oldest and most flavorful cuisines. As best I could tell, it is the only Ethiopian restaurant in Miami-Dade and among only a handful in our tricounty region of 6 million. Palm Beach County is home to Queen of Sheba restaurant in West Palm Beach, and Broward County has Teff Fields, a weekend-only vegetarian eatery at the Yellow Green Farmers Market in Hollywood.
The husband-and-wife team of Fouad and Eka Wassel opened Awash in August 2017 the week before Hurricane Irma and weathered the storm with a two-week closure as power was restored. Six months later, the cozy, family-run eatery is brightening a drab strip mall not far from Hard Rock Stadium, at the big intersection of State Road 7 (Northwest Second Avenue) and Ives Dairy Road (Northwest 199th Street). The food is tasty, the vibe is warm and inviting, and the restaurant happens to serve the best darned cup of coffee I’ve ever had.
It’s better than the espressos of Italy, the café au laits of Paris, the yuppified drips and cold brews of Seattle and San Francisco. It’s better than the sludgy and sickly sweet Cubano rocket fuel that many South Floridians swear by.
Coffee is an integral part of Ethiopian culture, Fouad Wassel explains, with villagers pausing to roast, brew and sip three times a day. He says it is customary for Ethiopians to consume three small cups at each coffee break, meaning nine cups a day. After my first sip of this delicacy at Awash, where raw beans imported from Ethiopia are freshly roasted in a skillet before being ground and brewed, I could see why. The coffee is light, fruity and buoyant — almost like fine wine — and needs no sugar. On my first visit, my server told me to sprinkle a dash of salt in my cup, a traditional way to enhance the flavor. It was so smooth, so soothing and so utterly different that I could not help but smile. That the coffee ($5) was served in a clay pot with a smoldering side dish of aromatherapy — burning and bubbling incense — made it all the more memorable.
As for the food, that’s pretty darned good, too. A mound of ground raw-beef knuckle called kitfo ($13.99) is the Ethiopian version of steak tartare, with spiced clarified butter similar to Indian ghee mixed with the meat over very low heat that barely warms it and does not cook it. It is chewier than steak tartare, and when dipped in the powdery, red bird-pepper known as mitmita and taken with a cooling dose of crumbled cow’s cheese, it’s more satisfying. Sambusas, fried pastry pockets stuffed with spiced ground meat ($6) or red lentils ($5), are cousins to Indian samosas, and they are excellent, greaseless and crunchy. Lamb tibs ($14.99) and fish golash ($15.99) feature cubes of protein stewed in peppers and spices. The lamb was a bit tough and the fish a bit lifeless, but the vibrant sauces pulled them through.
And then, there is the chicken doro wet ($13.99), marinated bone-in chicken that is stewed in African spices for seven hours. The sauce is sultry, thick and crimson, starting off sweet and smoky and building to spice on the finish that wraps your throat in a warm hug. A sip of the sweet Enat Taj honey wine ($7.99 a glass), brings a palate back to a happy equilibrium.
Awash, named for an Ethiopian river, is foreign in the very best sense of the word. The restaurant delivers an experience that is unfamiliar, a meal that will jolt diners out of their usual, Italian-one-night-sushi-the-next doldrums. The flavors and food may not be for everyone, but the curious at least ought to try it. Many dishes have the spice symphony of Indian and the subtle, sweet smokiness of barbecue. Vegetarian dishes such as red lentils, yellow split peas, cabbage, green beans and collard greens are scooped onto platters of flatbread and have the mushy texture and eat-by-hand playfulness usually reserved for a baby’s highchair, with spice that is decidedly grownup.
Stewed meats, chicken and vegetables are the staples of Ethiopian cuisine, and unlike the tables of most other African countries, rice or couscous is nowhere to be found. Nearly everything is served on a cool canvas of injera, the spongy and slightly sour flatbread pockmarked with yeasty holes made from teff, a grainlike seed from African lovegrass that is gluten-free and packed with nutrients. It has been around for thousands of years, yet most Americans have never seen or tasted it. Washington, D.C., has a pocket of Ethiopian restaurants that I explored decades ago, but the cuisine has not exactly conquered the land.
The Wassels are trying to do their bit in South Florida, which Fouad says has a small Ethiopian community, perhaps a thousand strong. Fouad and Eka are from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. He came to South Florida in the mid-1980s, studied business at Broward College and says he has operated numerous businesses, including convenience stores. Eka had never cooked professionally before, but always won raves for her traditional home cooking.
Sensing demand and a niche to fill (an Ethiopian restaurant named Sheba Miami came and went in midtown Miami earlier this decade), the Wassels, who live in Pembroke Pines, decided to give the restaurant business a go. They found a low-overhead spot with reasonable rent in Miami Gardens, a centralized location that Fouad says has been attracting trend-seeking millennials from Miami and Amharic-speaking Ethiopians from Broward. Besides serving lunch and dinner, the Wassels stage a traditional coffee ceremony with snacks at 4 p.m. Friday through Sunday and feature a jazz and blues musician on Thursday.
The restaurant is comfortable, with booths along one side and a bar featuring Ethiopian beers and wines, including honey wine, on the other. The center of the dining room has hand-carved wooden stools from Ethiopia surrounding low-slung traditional tables crafted from woven straw known as mesob (breadbaskets), with colorful lids that are removed during meals. Typically, Ethiopian food is eaten by hand, with mounds of meat and vegetables scooped into bite-size pockets of injera. Utensils are gladly brought upon request.
On a follow-up visit, Fouad Wassel, who runs the front of the house, told me that Ethiopian etiquette says it is bad form to take multiple bites from one injera rollup.
“Just pop it all into your mouth,” Wassel says.
At Awash, the adventurous diner will be happy to oblige.
Awash Ethiopian Restaurant
19934 NW Second Ave., Miami Gardens
305-770-5100 or AwashMiami.com
Cost: Moderate. Starters cost $5 to $8, mains $9 to $28, sides $4, desserts $5
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday. Traditional coffee ceremony at 4 p.m. Friday-Sunday
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Beer and wine, including Ethiopian specialties such as honey wine
Noise level: Conversational and mellow. Live jazz and blues on Thursday nights
Children: Child friendly with highchairs, boosters and kids’ menu with burgers, chicken tenders and fries
Handicapped access: Ground level
Parking: Free lot