Woinee Mariam plans to open a South Austin location of her excellent Pflugerville restaurant, Taste of Ethiopia, next spring in the mixed-use development at 3801 Congress Ave. Mariam says she hopes to be open by March.
Below is my 2009 mini-profile of Mariam and her husband Solomon Hailu’s family and their journey from the Washington D.C. are to Austin:
From caring for her family to preparing a sublime array of traditional Ethiopian dishes at her Taste of Ethiopia restaurant in Pflugerville, Woinee Mariam throws her heart and soul into everything she does.
That passion compelled her to sit for four hours on the hard floor of her daughter’s new school in Washington, D.C., nearly three years ago.
Her daughter, Hewan, is autistic. And Mariam, dismayed by what she perceived as the disregard of the staff and apathy of the students, did not feel comfortable sending her to a new school that failed to meet the family’s standards. The determined mother wanted to take her daughter out of that school. Immediately.
After deciding with her husband, Solomon Hailu, that their family needed to relocate to find a better life, Mariam gathered their four adolescent children and moved to Cedar Park. Hailu, who would join the rest of the family soon after, had relatives here, and after researching school districts, the couple said they were certain the city would be a wonderful place to raise their children.
Upon her arrival in Texas 21/2 years ago, Mariam worked briefly at a bank before deciding it was time to realize her own dream. With the support of friends and family and an infectious exuberance, the small woman who had spent 17 years working in other people’s restaurants opened her own. Taste of Ethiopia was born.
Spend two minutes in the little restaurant painted with comforting natural hues or on the breezy patio area sweetly scented by jasmine, and as the sounds of Bob Marley and traditional Ethiopian music permeate the mood, you drift into the warm peace that comes with being a member of Mariam’s extended family.
That family includes John Durant, one of Mariam’s former bank co-workers, who offered for free the services of his design firm.
‘I knew they were just starting out, and the design and feel of the restaurant was the last thing on their minds, ‘ said Durant. ‘It was something that I felt drawn to do, to help my friends make their dream a reality. Woinee is a woman of energy and love.’
Mariam extends that love and positive energy to her customers, greeting all with the smile of someone who looks like she’s gotten away with something, as her eyes sparkle and her gregarious nature almost dares you to ask her a question. Once you have, it’s off to the races, your conversation pinballing from children to music to philosophy and, of course, food.
‘This is one of the most rewarding experiences in my life. I get to meet people from all walks of life, ‘ Mariam said. ‘There is nothing more satisfying than to see people come and dine and leave satisfied. I enjoy serving the first-timers who never had Ethiopian food. I see the skepticism in their eyes and hear it in their tone of voice. Then, I comfort them and explain the traditions and the food.’
Her people skills are surpassed by her hand in the kitchen. Each dish features fresh ingredients, traditional spices from Ethiopia and a balance of robust and subtle flavors that make each item its own revelation.
”All dishes have to be as authentic as they can be, cooked with spices from Ethiopia, ‘ Mariam said. ‘I credit my mom for teaching me the essence of cooking.’
‘What I learned during my early years has paid off, ‘ she said. ‘Major holidays such as New Year, Easter (the end of a 60-day fasting season), Christmas and other holidays are celebrated by preparing a major feast consisting of the dishes that are being served at the restaurant.’
With her gratitude, easy nature and love for food and people, Mariam has brought that sense of celebratory and communal feasts to Taste of Ethiopia.
A choice made in the best interests of a family has become a boon to the food lovers of greater Austin.
For Woinee Mariam and Solomon Hailu, the days of searching for the right home seem well behind them.
‘It’ll take a bulldozer to move me from Austin, ‘ Hailu said.
Below is Mike Sutter’s 2009 review of the restaurant, which he gave 8 out of 10:
I’m no Ph.D. in gastro-culturalism, but I’ve seen enough to know that Ethiopian food is a full-contact sport, at least the way it’s done at Taste of Ethiopia, a Pflugerville restaurant recommended to me by austin360.com colleague Matthew Odam (see previous page).
The meat and vegetable dishes might come to the table in boundary-respecting bowls of their own, but unless you put a stop to it, out they go onto this flying saucer of a platter lined with injera, the Horn of Africa’s answer to the tortilla or the pita.
From there, it’s a free-for-all. Sweet cabbage and carrots (tikil gomen) bump into grainy yellow split peas with the peppery warmth of turmeric (ater kik), which in turn get a good soak of peppery red sauce from the rosemary-scented simmered beef (tibbs). Tear off a piece of injera and wrap it around anything that looks good, or you might get left out.
Somehow, even in these Purell-ian times, this all makes sense, propelled by the warmth of hosts Woinee Mariam and her husband, Solomon Hailu, Ethiopian immigrants who opened Taste of Ethiopia in October. The restaurant joins Aster’s and Karibu in Austin as outposts for the country’s love affair with garlic, red berbere spice and ginger.
For our circular bounty, we ordered the beef tibbs described above ($10.95), a sampler of five vegetarian dishes ($17.95 for two, $11.95 for one) and a beef specialty called chefuye ($11.95). Mariam spooned the dishes into two sets of roughly equal portions within the big platter, explaining the spices and components of each one as she went, saving the robust tibbs for the center. In a basket to the side, injera played a host of roles: silverware, gravy mop, napkin. It’s truly a wonder bread.
In addition to the cabbage and split peas mentioned earlier, the vegetable sampler included chopped and steamed collard greens with a sly jalapeño and garlic bite (gomen), a robust stew of string beans and carrots tingling with ginger and tomato (fesolia) and aggressively spiced split lentils (yemisir wot) to keep things interesting. Brightly dressed salads of lettuce, tomato and onion took the tray’s four compass points.
But the winner of the cafe-pageant sash for Most Enigmatic Dish went to chefuye, an $11.95 collection of lean beef chunks the size of robin’s eggs warmed in clarified butter and served with collard greens and housemade cottage cheese. It’s important to say ‘warmed, ‘ because for all practical purposes, we’re talking about a fistful of raw meat. But the earthy spice warmed the mouth, and the meat was as yielding as the best tenderloin, though it came from the beef knuckle, also called the tip roast. The greens and soft cheese lent sweetness, bitterness and sour creaminess to the dish, making it a fully rounded flavor experience.
Judging from its humble home in a catch-all strip mall that includes a Mexican barbecue, a nail shop and an Asian restaurant, I didn’t expect atmosphere from Taste of Ethiopia, exactly. But with muted ochre walls, a gallery-quality photo installation of Ethiopian men on horseback and a side patio tented with billowing tan fabric, the setting matched the food for its embracing warmth.
Speaking of warmth, the place gets extra-credit points for its Ethiopian coffee fortified with cardamom and cinnamon, the better to elbow out your tablemates for first dibs on the tibbs.