To anyone watching from the outside, the opening of Awaz’e – in February, just a few weeks after the closing of the previous tenant in the strip mall space – seemed to take place practically overnight. But for Azeb Mekonnen, the road leading to the opening of her first restaurant has been long and circuitous, starting in Ethiopia and making its way to Cary by way of Toronto.
Since moving here nearly a decade ago, Mekonnen has been inching her way closer and closer to realizing her dream of owning a restaurant – honing her cooking skills at first by bringing Ethiopian dishes to potluck suppers, then by quitting her job as a lab tech to open a catering business. When she heard through the grapevine that the Ashee restaurant space was available, she saw her chance. Her sister, Eden, agreed to move down from Maryland to help open the restaurant and run the front of the house.
The fact that Ashee had also been an Ethiopian restaurant gave Mekonnen a head start in decorating. A fresh coat of paint, gauzy new curtains in the windows, a few potted plants, and her collection of baskets and woven straw tapestry were all she needed to give the modest dining room a warm and cheery look. In one corner, a colorful straw basket table called a mesob adds an exotic touch – and is available on request for anyone seeking the traditional dining experience.
Mekonnen named her restaurant Awaz’e for the fiery condiment made with berbere, the spice blend that is woven throughout Ethiopian cuisine like the straws in those tapestries on the walls. Awaz’e is available on request. Feel free to ask for a fork, too, though that’s entirely optional here. Food is served on house-made injera, a spongy, thick, crepe-like bread made from teff that serves as plate, utensil and food all rolled into one. Tear off a piece of injera, use it to pick up a morsel of food, and pop the whole thing into your mouth.
For a broad sampling of Ethiopian cuisine, order the veggie platter and one or two meat dishes. Eden Mekonnen will bring the veggies – a colorful assortment of half a dozen dishes, from chopped collards to vibrant yellow split peas to coppery lentils – on a platter lined with injera, distributed around its edge like dabs of paint on an artist’s palette. The flavors are as varied as the colors: the herb-seasoned split peas mild, the lentils fairly humming with berbere spice, the patchwork of cabbage, carrots and potatoes tinged with the faintest whiff of exotic spice.
In the center of this savory color wheel, she’ll spoon generous mounds of the meat dishes you’ve selected. Doro wat, a spicy hallmark of Ethiopian cuisine featuring chicken and hard-boiled egg in a deep bronze sauce whose flavor is somewhere between Indian curry and Texas chili, is a worthy option. Key wat, a version of the the dish that substitutes chopped beef for the chicken, nudges the compass needle more in the direction of Texas.
The heat level of wat is by no means intimidating (provided you don’t amp it up with awaz’e), but if you’re seeking a milder alternative, you’ll find it among a handful of variations on the tibs theme. Nech tibs, say, a gently seasoned stew of lean beef, onions and bell peppers. Or asa tibs, which replaces the beef with nuggets of roasted fish. Or Azeb Mekonnen’s signature Awaz’e tibs, which admittedly climbs the Scoville scale a notch with a few slivers of jalapeño, but rewards you with tender strips of beef or lamb simmered in a complex sauce of tomatoes and onions punctuated with garlic and rosemary.
On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, the streamlined entree offering expands slightly to include kitfo, Ethiopia’s answer to French steak tartare. Azeb Mekonnen serves the iconic dish – made by kneading butter into freshly minced raw beef – with a side of collard greens and crumbles of a fresh cheese similar to cottage cheese. Even if the word “raw” in that description doesn’t make you queasy, a cooked version of the dish called z’kitfo is a worthy alternative in its own right.
Homemade dessert options include tiramisu and a first-rate baklava filled with walnuts, almonds and pecans, and topped with crushed pistachios. Don’t let the unfamiliar name deter you from Addis cake, a milk-moistened, cinnamon-dusted cake similar to a Mexican tres leches. As she’s serving it to you, Eden Mekonnen will proudly tell you that she bakes the cake from a recipe she created, and that she named it for the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, where she and her sister grew up. It’s our good fortune that the long journey that began there has ended up in Cary.
904 NE Maynard Road, Cary; 919-377-2599; awazecuisine.com
Atmosphere: warm and cheery
Noise level: low
Service: welcoming and attentive
Recommended: doro wat, Awaz’e tibs, kitfo, veggie platter
Open: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Other: beer and wine; accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.