Austin’s having a torrid affair with the ramen noodle. Ink has been spilled over our passion for both Indian and Thai cuisine. But African food? Well, that romance is just beginning.
Counting Karibu Ethiopian, which is currently closed and in the process of moving, Austin hosts only five — five! — African eateries. That means you could feasibly visit all in one very delicious week, tasting both coasts of the African continent in the process. Here’s a guide to Austin’s African fare, with recommended dishes for first-timers.
Aster’s Ethiopian Restaurant
Open since: 2006 in the current location — its second.
Try: The Fasolia Wott Platter
It tastes like: Fasolia Wott is a big beautiful plate of vegetarian fare (collard greens, mashed lentils, garlic stewed potatoes) served on injera, a large, pancake-like disc of fermented bread made from the teff grain. Sour and soft, it’s traditional Ethiopian bread, and you tear off chunks to pick up your food in lieu of forks and knives.
The Aster’s story: Aster Kassaye grew up 50 miles outside Ethiopia’s capital, cooking alongside her mom in the kitchen. When she moved to Austin in 1985 with her husband, she was one of the first to introduce Ethopian cuisine to the city, first through her retail foodstuffs, then through the first iteration of Aster’s Ethopian on Rutland Drive. Even though it was open only five years (1990-95), it gained plenty of hungry fans who eventually followed her to Aster’s second location in Hyde Park. That one opened its doors in 2006, and runs a consistently bustling business day and night.
Perhaps because of its visibility from Interstate 35 — or perhaps because the food is so ridiculously good — Aster’s has served several high-profile patrons, including Ziggy Marley’s band, Austin singer Nakia from season one of "The Voice," and Mark Henry — aka, Hall of Pain’s World Heavyweight Champion.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. All-you-can-eat lunch buffet ($9.99) from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Information: 2804 N. IH-35. www.astersethiopian.com and 512-469-5966.
Open since: 2010
Region: Senegal, with Moroccan influences
Try: The Lamb Burger, ordered "Bunny Chow" style
It tastes like: A warm, hollowed-out baguette from South Lamar’s Moonlight Bakery, stuffed with tender, cumin- and paprika-seasoned lamb meat and topped with tomato relish, cucumbers and brie. "Bunny Chow" refers to South African street food with a sweet legacy: In the 1940s, restaurant workers would sneak food to the poor by hollowing out loaves of bread and discreetly filling them with food.
The Cazamance story: Owner Iba Thiam is a big personality, so it’s no surprise that his café – located in the back of the CTC Garden on East Cesar Chavez Street – is just as warm and colorful as he is. He didn’t speak a word of English when he moved to the U.S. in 1996, but learned it in six months inside the kitchens of New York City. Following stints in catering, acting and modeling, he was handed the keys to Bumble & Bumble’s Café inside their New York headquarters, running it for five years. But when it came time to start a family, Iba and his wife moved to Austin, where he got a job launching the gelato and juice bars in the newly revamped Whole Foods Flagship store. He struck out on his own with Cazamance in 2010, running a food trailer next to Clive Bar, and eventually moved his whole operation east, dishing up Senegalese/Moroccan dishes such as peanut butter stew and lamb feta meatballs — but with an Austin twist.
"I try to incorporate the smokiness and the heat of Central Texas when I can," says Thiam, whose trailer was one of just 15 selected by Paul Qui for this year’s SouthBites at South by Southwest.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday-Friday.
Information: 1102 E Cesar Chavez St. www.cazamance.com and 512-487-7222.
Habesha Ethiopian Restaurant & Bar
Open since: January
Try: A few orders of Sambusa
It tastes like: Delectable fried pastries, filled with ground beef seasoned with onions and green peppers, served with a tangy green sauce made from jalapenos, cilantro, lemon juice, garlic and ginger.
The Habesha story: Habesha’s co-owners, husband and wife team Yidnekachew Fantu and Selam Abebe, kindled their love over a plate of food. They met in 1997 at a restaurant in Maryland, when Abebe was Fantu’s server, and the two married that same year.
Abebe joined Fantu in Austin in 1997, and up until recently was waiting tables at the Westin Hotel at the Domain. But with family in the restaurant business, she always wanted to create one of her own, so she and Fantu began looking for a space. A property on the corner of U.S. 290 and N. Interstate 35 — which has several restaurant past lives — became available in September 2012, and the couple snatched it up. Inside, they serve Ethiopian entrees out of huge, woven mesob baskets and so far are the only African restaurant in town with a full bar.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday
Information: 6019 N. IH-35. www.habesha-austin.com and 512-358-6839.
Wasota African Cuisine
Open since: 2011
Try: Egusi Soup with Fufu
It tastes like: Mashed potatoes (only chewier), topped with a rich, cheesy-tasting tomato/spinach stew.
The Wasota Story: Owner Lawrence Eguakun is also the former owner of the long-lost World Beat Café on MLK Boulevard, which closed its doors in 2006, after Eguakun was diagnosed with lymphoma. Given a 15 percent chance of survival, he found a ferociously dedicated oncologist — and after several rounds of radiation and chemo, he entered remission that same year. He’s been healthy since.
The Huston-Tillotson graduate opened Wasota in 2011 with a large vegan menu. "In Nigeria, we don’t use a lot of dairy to cook — we use mostly vegetable broth," says Eguakun. That being said, carnivores won’t leave unsatisfied: There’s chicken, beef, and even goat on the menu here, and portions are enormous, especially given the reasonable prices. The most expensive dish is the Boneless Goat Platter served on Jollof, a tomato paste-infused rice with garlic and ginger ($11.95).
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, noon to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Information: 1209 South First St. www.wasotaafricancuisine.com and 512-565-3864.
Karibu Ethiopian update
And for those mourning the locked doors on Karibu? Don’t fret: The restaurant is currently "trying to find the right space in two or three months that will be pedestrian friendly and has wonderful windows for natural light. We’re also looking into adding some solid Ethiopian style pastries, which is one of the reasons Yodit (Tekle, owner) is in Addis Abeba right now," says manager Akilas Abera. "That city has a phenomenal pastries culture and appreciation that we’d like to bring here."