Queen of Sheba (formerly called Abyssinia) Kentucky’s only Ethiopian restaurant, opened in 2003, but not to throngs eager for doro wot, kitfo and timatim fit-fit. Chef/owners Selam Deneke and her husband Ferid soon realized they were trying to appeal to a dining pubic that was unfamiliar with Ethiopian cuisine, having more doubts and questions than enthusiasm for trying something new.
“Most Louisvillians didn’t know Ethiopians have fresh food. We were even questioned if we were really Ethiopian. She credits a slowly growing cadre of good customers with encouraging her and instilling the confidence to be patient while the restaurant made a name for itself. It took about four years for Queen of Sheba to gain a solid foothold on the Louisville dining scene.
“I love the business because I have the chance to introduce people to Ethiopian food and our culture,” says Deneke.
One of 11 children in a family living in Addis Abba, she came to the United States to visit relatives. She met her husband-to-be, who owned the former international cuisine restaurant Utopia, during a trip to Louisville. After teaching for three years, her husband persuaded her to join him in opening an Ethiopian restaurant on Frankfort Avenue. Laughing, she says their chosen name of Abyssinia had to be changed when they discovered many people weren’t able to pronounce it. Abyssinia became Queen of Sheba and moved to the lower level of a motel on Bardstown Road, eventually settling in to its present location on Taylorsville Road.
The 75-85 seat restaurant, including a bar and two dining rooms, has a casual atmosphere that is distinguished by authentic Ethiopian décor, including several mesobs, small round basket-like tables. Nine employees (one of whom has only the responsibility to make injera, a type of Ethiopian flat bread) prepare and serve the traditional Ethiopian dishes that Deneke learned to make when she was young. Some of the most popular items are shista, which is sautéed chicken, beef or lamb; a meat and vegetable combination that has a mild beef or chicken stew, cabbage and greens; and gored gored, spicy meat cut in cubes and sautéed with butter and a blend of spices. Berbere, an Ethiopian spice known for its heat finds its way into many of the dishes although there are plenty of selections for the more timid palate. Only fresh ingredients are used in all the dishes.
Diners are offered a few different dishes on one large platter, and are encouraged to follow the Ethiopian custom of eating with their hands, and picking up their food with injera. For diners who don’t want to totally steep themselves in Ethiopian customs, the staff happily supplies them with flatware. “I know some people don’t like to eat with their hands, but I think it’s wonderful to share the dishes with others in your group and to have the connection to the food that you can get only when you eat with your hands,” says Deneke.
Now that she’s weathered seven years in business, the topic of opening a second location is often presented to her by her patrons. “I want to keep improving this restaurant. Either my husband or I have to be here all the time to stay on top of the quality of food and service. It’s very time consuming and labor intensive to run the restaurant the way we want it run. That’s the only reason we wouldn’t open a second restaurant,” she says.