Food & Culture
These Vibrant East African Cafes, Shops Are the Best Reason to Visit This North Seattle Neighborhood
In Pinehurst, Steve Scher finds a slice of Ethiopia and Eritrea.
By Steve Scher August 28, 2017
On a recent late-morning stroll, I stopped at Jebena Cafe, one of a handful of East African businesses that dot the southern edge of North Seattle’s Pinehurst neighborhood, and ordered the foul for breakfast: a bowl of fava beans, onions, serrano chiles, feta cheese, tomatoes and eggs served with warm French bread for dipping. The only other customer, Mulugeta G. Deso, assured me I wouldn’t go wrong with this dish. He was right; it was delicious.
Like many of the Ethiopians who have settled in the Pacific Northwest, Deso, a onetime aircraft mechanic and current parking lot attendant who settled in this country 19 years ago, found opportunity here.
“America has a reputation for being generous and welcoming,” he said, speaking without irony, despite the immigrant discussions happening in the other Washington. We were both welcomed by owner Martha Seyoum, who left Ethiopia 26 years ago. She stood at the rear of her café, in front of the outline of a large jebena, the long-necked East African coffee pot. She greeted us with arms wide, happy to be alive.
Photograph by Ben Lindbloom. Businesses catering to Ethiopian and Eritrean residents are peppered throughout strip malls and other buildings in North Seattle’s Pinehurst neighborhood.
“I had brain tumors, a pancreatic cancer operation, bleeding out five pints a day,” she says, revealing a recent health crisis. “When the doctors had given up, the good Lord told me, you stay.” So here she is, happy to still be running the business with her brother, Mesfin Ayele. In their adjacent store, Jebena Market, there are stacks of spices, including ground pinecone that smells of dry, distant forests.
This slice of East Africa may seem surprising. Many East Africans came here in the 1990s and early 2000s, when thousands of refugees fled the violence in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. Most of the region’s East African population of 40,000 settled in South Seattle and southwest King County, but there is also a community in North Seattle. The 2010 census estimated 6.3 percent of the 8,600 Pinehurst residents spoke African languages at home.
The cluster of Ethiopian and Eritrean businesses in Pinehurst came about organically. As often happens, one or two families settle in a neighborhood, and relatives follow. More family and friends come. Someone can’t find teff, the grain needed to make the spongy Ethiopian bread, injera, at the local Safeway. Someone else yearns for canned fava beans and the green coffee beans from home. New residents who were merchants in Addis Ababa still have contacts there and the needed skills; a restaurant opens, orders are placed, storage is needed. Soon, more stores and small businesses appear.
Pinehurst is a neighborhood on the cusp of change. Wedged between Northgate, Interstate 5, Lake City Way and 130th, its modest mid-20th-century homes sport scandalous price tags. The small commercial district along 15th Avenue NE still has a few single-story buildings, some flanked by those white master use permit boards that announce change is coming.
Photograph by Ben Lindbloom. Tsigereda Tekle stocks both Western-style wedding dresses and traditional Ethiopian and Eritrean gowns in her shop, Blue Touch Bridal Boutique and Decor.
Farther up 15th is a small Ethiopian-owned market—one of several—where I stop to buy some mitmita, the fiery orange spice mixture that flavored my foul. That building and the nearby empty building that once housed a coffee shop are slated for demolition. You can’t stop change.
A new apartment building will match the ones across the street and the one next door. In the small ground-floor commercial space of a relatively new apartment building, Tsigereda Tekle, “Titi” for short, has big plans. She recently opened Blue Touch Bridal Boutique and Decor. Hanging among the Western-style white wedding dresses are traditional Eritrean and Ethiopian gowns, with colorfully embroidered sleeves, hems and jackets.
“I have this vision of combining Western and Ethiopian, Eritrean fashions to create something unique.” She knows it is a bold step to open this business in a changing neighborhood.
She left Asmara, Eritrea, 16 years ago. She says she misses the air, the food and the family of her native land, but for her kids, who grew up here, this is home. Like the children of millions of immigrants before them, they are all-American, she says.
Back at the Jebena Cafe, Martha Seyoum prepares to serve another meal and offer another welcome, in English or Aramaic, to new friends and old. A few families still come in for the thick Ethiopian coffee poured from jebenas set on the table. They sit and sip, remembering the lands they left, busy in the homes they’ve found.
Photograph by Ben Lindbloom. Preparing coffee the Ethiopian way can take an hour or more and includes toasting the coffee, and serving it in a traditional jebena.
Savor Your Coffee
If you want to enjoy coffee prepared in the Ethiopian manner, you will have to invest that most precious of modern commodities, a little time. To prepare this coffee, the green coffee beans are washed in cool water, then toasted in a large frying pan. The beans pop as they heat up, sounding a bit like popcorn. The roasted beans are then ground and added to water in the jebena, a tall-necked pot, and boiled. The resulting thick coffee is poured into small cups and sweetened. Traditionally, families and friends enjoy three cups, savoring the beverage and the conversation. Coffee prepared this way can take an hour or more. At Ethiopian restaurants, you can place an order in advance of your arrival, but then you’ll miss the ceremony and the pleasure of spending your time.