When deciding where to open a new restaurant five years ago, Taste of Ethiopia co-owner Woinee Mariam said a strip mall in Pflugerville was not an obvious choice.
However, Mariam said she fell in love with the location and decided it was the perfect place to make her dream of owning her own restaurant come true.
"I looked through the window, and I knew what I could do with this place," she said. "I knew it was in the middle of nowhere, but I knew I could do something special with it."
Mariam said her gamble to open Taste of Ethiopia in a strip mall on Grand Avenue Parkway has paid off. She said the restaurant has drawn an increasing number of customers throughout its five years of operation. The restaurant brings in a mix of regulars from Pflugerville and Austin and even some customers from as far away as Waco, she said.
Regular customer Aaron Bryant said he drives from South Austin to Pfugerville just for Taste of Ethiopia.
"This is the best Ethiopian food in the area, hands down," he said. "It's worth the 25-minute drive."
Ethiopian dishes are served family-style and come in a large pan on injera bread, which is a spongy, gluten-free sourdough bread that has a consistency similar to a thin pancake or crepe. The dish is placed in a mesob, a woven basket, and is eaten by hand.
Ethiopian cuisine often features ingredients such as collard greens, lentils, green beans and eggplant. The meat dishes are usually somewhat spicy and served in a thick stew. Two popular spices used in Taste of Ethiopia's dishes are berbere, a spice mixture that includes chili peppers, and mitmita, a mixture of ground peppers and savory spices.
Mariam said she loves how the family-style meals foster conversation and interaction among the diners.
"Ethiopian is a comfort food, and it makes a family eat together—even if they are mad at each other—because you have to eat from the same plate with your hands," she said. "Food always connects people."
Mariam, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Solomon Hailu, said she dreamt of running a restaurant since she was a 16-year-old hostess in a Cajun restaurant.
In 2008 when her oldest daughter was about to attend high school, Mariam's family moved from Washington, D.C., to Austin. Mariam and Hailu did not have jobs lined up in Austin, and Mariam said she saw it as the perfect opportunity to make her dream of owning a restaurant come true.
"I'm a good cook, and I'm very friendly," she said. "I love people, and I love to feed people. That's the main reason I wanted to open a restaurant."
Mariam said she is considering opening a second Taste of Ethiopia location in Austin. Regardless of possible future growth plans, she said her goal remains to connect people with one another through good food.
"I'm not looking to get rich with it. That's not what my satisfaction is," she said. "[What] we want when people come in is to feel like they are at home."
Taste of Ethiopia offers a weekday lunch buffet from 11 a.m–2 p.m.
The buffet has 10 dishes, nine of which are vegetarian. The dishes range from sauteed spinach to potatoes and beets. The cost is $10.
Taste of Ethiopia co-owner Woinee Mariam said the buffet is a healthy way for diners to get full during lunch. The buffet has a gluten-free option that comes with rice. The lunch buffet draws a wide mix of clientele, Mariam said.
Doro wot: The national dish of Ethiopia features chicken with diced red onions that is simmered for several hours. The dish is served with two chicken drumsticks and a hard-boiled egg for $12.95.
Lamb tibbs: The dish (pictured above) features lamb sauteed with butter, tomatoes, onions, garlic and ginger for $12.95.
Kotfo: The dish features finely chopped beef seasoned with savory spices and topped with specially prepared butter for $12.50.
1100 Grand Avenue Parkway, 512-251-4053, www.tasteofethiopiaaustin.com, Hours: Sun.–Mon. 11 a.m.–10 p.m.