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.
The closest thing to Broadway one can find outside of New York City, at least in the US, is the Barter Theater. The Barter, Virginia’s state theater, has put Abingdon on the map, making it a destination for tourists from around the world. One has only to attend a performance, any performance, to recognize the breadth of the talent that resides in this tiny corner of SW Virginia.
NEW LOOK, NEW LOCATION, SAME INTENTION
This June Whole Health Natural Foods store (aka Whole Health Center) opened at its brand new location in the heart of Abingdon. Conveniently situated between I-81 exits 17 and 19, the new location is nestled between neighboring restaurant 128 Pecan—a fun, casual spot with some vegetarian dishes and a vegan option or two—and the trailhead of the beautiful Virginia Creeper Trail.
A year ago, Rich and I passed through Carlisle en-route to Central New York for an annual Easter visit with relatives. Carlisle has a dearth of restaurants offering healthy, plant-based options. There is a Tappas bar which claims to offer vegan options but when questioned closely you’ll find the fingerling potatoes are fried in beef tallow, the croutons contain eggs and the olives are just taken from a jar and dunked in a pool of flavored olive oil. The pita bread is obviously store bought. They will remove the cheese and other offending products but offer nothing to compensate the diner for the loss. No thanks, we’ll pass.
There is an excellent Japanese/Vietnamese noodle shop (we reviewed last year) called Essei Noodles and there is a wonderful market (also reviewed last year), Appalachian Whole Foods. So, last year, following our lunch at Essei, we stopped to check out a lovely little vegetarian café on West Pomfret Street called Gaia Fresh Food Café. We spoke with Gaia’s owner, George Catselis. We didn’t try the food at the time since we had already eaten. However, we did get a look at the place and an earful from George on his plans to make this a community meeting place where people who care what goes into their bodies and care about what is happening to our planet can congregate. A year later, and George’s plans are coming to fruition.
1 tablespoon yellow curry paste
1/2 cup coconut milk
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons vegetarian fish sauce
2 cups mixed vegetables (in this demo she is using broccoli, carrots, boiled potato and onion)
1/2 cup fried tofu
Add oil to hot wok or skillet. Add yellow curry paste. Stir to combine.
Add coconut milk. Lower heat and stir to combine. Add vegetarian fish sauce and the sugar. Mix together until creamy.
Add fresh vegetables and tofu. Cook unit vegetables deepen in color. They should still have a little crunch when you bite into them.
Serve with brown or white rice.
We are sorry to report that Uncanny Kitchen is now closed for business. Uncanny Kitchen – Southwest Virginia’s Most Socially Responsible Restaurant!
Not the tiniest detail was overlooked in creating Uncanny Kitchen, hands-down the most socially responsible restaurant in the region. It just doesn’t get much better than this!
The secret to the appeal of Uncanny Kitchen is in the partnership between owner David Basinger and his girlfriend of three years, Lisa Sykes. If David is the chef and the creative culinary mind behind Uncanny Kitchen, Lisa is its social conscience and marketing force. Aside from their talents, experience and market savvy, these two are a couple of seriously nice people!
David, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu Western Culinary of Portland, OR, has had opportunities to work in large restaurants and run the kitchens of high-dollar establishments in other areas of the country. He preferred, however, to bring his talents home to serve the community he grew up in, offering wholesome, delicious food at affordable prices.
It is important to David to connect with the farmers in the area. When he was at culinary school, one of the things he liked best was the opportunity to join the co-op. He was instrumental in the development of the Farm To Table program in Portland. He often volunteered at Sauvie Island, where the school had some land. He peeled potatoes or turned compost on his off time. He’d pick berries and volunteer with Sauvie Organics who gave him plants to grow at the school. He came to see the value of working within a community of agricultural entrepreneurs and he liked this model of doing business. (more…)