In one of the most unlikely places, we discovered a gem of an Ethiopian restaurant located in the recesses of a small family owned convenience store, appropriately name Family Convenience Store. The chef, Tirhas Negassi Woldebabr, was once the chef of a favorite Ethiopian restaurant in the same city, called The Blue Nile. We had reviewed The Blue Nile several years ago and were dismayed to learn that it had closed. What I remember best was how delicious the food was, especially the Ethiopian Peanut Soup served with an unforgettable bread, Ambashi, which is the national bread of Ethiopia, according to Tirhas’s husband and partner, Mehari. T. Ocbamichael. With overtones of honey, it was a perfect complement to the to-die-for peanut soup.
Now, the couple has opened up the Family Convenience Store, and Tirhas is back, juggling batches of batter between three grills, efficiently making injera and ambasha breads for her customers. She also prepares a wonderful menu of Ethiopian stews, called Wot (pronounced What), served on the spongy sourdough injera flatbread for which Ethiopia is famous. She offers packages of fresh injera for sale in the store, as well as with the dinners she prepares for eat-in or take-out service. Their daughter, a newly graduated high-school student, helps out in the store when she’s needed.
Mehari manages the Family Convenience Store, which offers all the standard items one can find at an American convenience store, but it also provides a range of Ethiopian goods, such as an assortment of spices, teff flour, and false banana root. I bought some of the false banana, though I’ve no idea what I’m going to do with it. I just couldn’t resist! You may wonder whether there is a demand for Ethiopian products in the area, but it seems there is. Harrisonburg boasts a thriving Ethiopian community of 400 families. It is no wonder a constant stream of native Ethiopians drifted in and out during our visit, picking up bundles of fresh injera for their families or filling the small tables in the back to enjoy a meal.
Tirhas was kind enough to show us how she makes both injera and ambasha, which is almost unbelievable since Ethiopians tend to guard their injera recipes with their lives. Making injera is an art that takes time to master. Some people never get it right; Tirhas certainly does.
But let’s get to the food. While there isn’t a huge variety of vegan fare, it is certainly enough to give you a filling taste of authentic Ethiopia with a good balance of nutrients. We ordered the Gomen (collard greens), Misir Wot (spicy red lentils), and the Diniche Alicha (potatoes, green beans, and carrots), which included a tasty salad of tomatoes, lettuce, onion and jalapeño peppers with a lemony dressing. The injera is some of the best we’ve tasted anywhere. It was soft and pillowy, with a slight sourdough flavor.
While we were speaking with Tirhas, we ran into Rick Yoder, who had popped in to let her know that he was bringing in a party of four later that evening. A former economics professor of Eastern Mennonite University, Yoder is now a Health Systems Consultant for low-income countries. Rick had once lived in Ethiopia and tells us that this convenience store/restaurant is a very typical venue there. He says he loves the food and attests to Family Convenience Store’s authentic flavors. What he particularly likes is that it hasn’t been Americanized like a lot of the Ethiopian restaurants he’s tried in this country. Not having visited Ethiopia ourselves, we can’t attest to that, but we can say this food is equal to or better than many of the Ethiopian restaurants we’ve visited and the injera, which is the heart of any Ethiopian meal, is among the best.
Do yourself a favor the next time you are tooling down I-81 South and are hankering for some good Ethiopian cuisine. Stop by Family Convenient Store and enjoy the best Ethiopian food within a 100-mile radius!
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Tirhas swears by the Heritage grill. She has been using one of hers for twelve years and she has bought two more to keep up with her baking demands, making three injera in quick succession. She feels they are the best, especially for the price. You will need the lid, which is purchased separately. I, personally, have a Wass digital grill (mitad). You can get it at half the price listed on Amazon at almost any Ethiopian market, but you will no doubt pay a lot in shipping costs. I’ll add a link to that product below. I am happy with my purchase but have not had it long enough to verify its longevity.
If it had been a snake it would have bitten us. Rich and I were in Harrisonburg, PA to review Indian American Cafe and The Blue Nile Ethiopian Restaurant. On the way back to our hotel we chanced upon a terrific health food store. If you need to stock up on plant-based supplies while traveling I-81, this is just off the highway and is definitely worth the small detour.
Sue’s is a clean, well stocked, medium sized store. You can find some fresh and frozen foods, and plenty of bulk bin items. This is the ONLY place I’ve been able to find dried fava beans other than on-line. You can believe I stocked up!
Sue carries lots packaged goods, like Bob’s Mills products, herbs and supplements, essential oils and your typical health food fare. Her daughter was working the register the day we were in. She was pleasant and helpful. If you’ve left something behind in your travels, Sue’s may be just the place to find a replacement.
Blue Nile is an Ethiopian restaurant/music club located on Main Street in Harrisonburg, VA. When I called to find out when they were open the noise blaring in the background made it nearly impossible to hear the answers to my questions. Since I was never able to get concrete information, I will do the best I can to enlighten you by sharing my experience and observations. It’s quite possible I’m just making this stuff up. There are two floors to the Blue Nile. The downstairs has a full bar and a dance floor with live music every night and dance parties on Friday and Saturday from 7pm – 2am daily. I don’t know if the phone was answered from this floor when I called or if the music was so loud it overwhelmed the second floor as well. The waitress wasn’t very helpful in answering my questions, though it was quiet when we dined there.
We stopped in for an early dinner and it was relatively empty at that time. The noise level was normal, no blaring bands in the background but the downstairs was not yet opened for business. We ordered traditional Ethiopian food which is comprised of Injera, a spongy Ethiopian sour pancake made from an African grain called Teff. On the top are little piles of food which you can order as an individual dish, each vegetarian entree is $9 or as a combination platter. We ordered the combination vegetable platter for two. ($30) This comes with two pieces of extra injera and a sample of most of their entrees. (more…)
Indian-American Cafe is one of the loveliest surprises we’ve found in our search for good vegan cuisine. It is located on a corner at a red light on 91 N Main St. in Harrisonburg, VA, (off Interstate 81). From its pedestrian exterior one would never expect to find such good food and such a lovely couple creating it. John and Rameshori Shrestha are the genuine article. I observed John, his face radiant as he greeted each of his customers by their first names, a sturdy hand reaching out in a welcoming grasp. He knows them all and they know him. John’s wife, Rameshori, makes you feel as if you are a member of the family. “You’re welcome anytime,” she says warmly, making you feel as if this is where you belong.
The name Indian American is a bit confusing. What is served is actually the cuisine of Nepal. The food is similar to Indian cuisine with numerous vegan offerings. They do carry a few American lunch items but none of it is vegan. What you will find is some of the most flavorful Indian fare at the best prices we’ve found anywhere. The owners have been at this location for 21 years now and have a loyal clientele. While we were waiting for our food, we asked several customers how they enjoyed their meal and how often they come to eat at Indian American Cafe. To a man, they love this food and have eaten here at least twice a week for years.
American Indian Cafe has a thriving carry-out business as well. One gentleman was introduced to the place by a nearby hairstylist eight years ago. I believe the hairstylist has moved on but this gentleman has not. He has been coming to Indian American Cafe twice a week ever since and has introduced many of his co-workers to the restaurant. Often, he and his co-workers will order from the restaurant en mass for carry-out.
John and Rameshori Shrestha, are from Kathmandu, Nepal, which is bordered in the north by China and by India in the south, east and west. Much of the Nepalese cuisine attests to its Indian influence in the similarity of spices and vegetable combinations though there are some differences. One obvious difference is the spiciness of the cuisine which is kicked up a couple of notches in Nepalese cooking. If you order level two in spiciness, prepare to drink a lot of water. Order mild and that is what you’ll get. Even if you like it spicy, I would still stay on the lower level of the menu’s heat indicator until you know what level you can handle. The Nepalese take their spices seriously.
Another difference is the reduced amount of oil in their dishes. I really appreciate this fact as many, if not most, restaurants seem to equate fat with flavor. The dishes have a clean fresh taste which sits lightly on the stomach while continuing to please the palate. Nor are they inundated with salt, another ubiquitous restaurant habit.
So, what did we eat there? Nearly everything! It was all so yummy! We arrived in time for a late lunch ordering from the lunch menu. I had Alu Saag, ($6.50), a potato and spinach curry which was divine and Rich had the Vegetable Brianni ($7.50) a curried rice with raisins, almonds and cashews. We tried most of the vegan dishes, taking stacks of boxes home with us. All but the rice dishes were served with a generous portion of rice as a side. They were all spectacular!
We had the mixed vegetables with herbs and spices ($6.50), The Dall Saag ($6.50), which are yellow lentils and spinach in a curry with herbs and spices. OMG!! This was wonderful!! The Shmi Alu (6.50) are potatoes and green peas with Indian herbs and spices and Alu Miatar, ($6.50) are potatoes, green beans and green peppers in a curry blend. There is also a vegetable fried rice ($6.50). The Cobi Alu ($6.95) is made of cauliflower cooked down into a almost creamy texture with chunks of potato, peas, onions, and tomatoes with Indian spices. Each dish was better than the last and nothing fell short of just plain good eating!
We tried a couple of the breads, many of which are vegan. I had the Naan ($1.75), which is addictive, while Rich ordered the Chappati ($1.75). Try the tomato chutney. It is a new experience and was recommended to me by one of the customers. We loved it. Also good is the mango chutney. Coffee was served in individual carafes, enough for two cups.
The dinner menu ranges from $8.95 to $10.95. The dinner portions are much larger portions, though the lunch entrees were very substantial. I can’t imagine finishing a dinner meal.
One thing to note about Indian American Café is they do not accept credit cards. Cash and check only helps them to keep their prices low and keep them operational. It is definitely worth this small inconvenience. This is a restaurant we hope to visit often when our travels take us up and down I-81.