The dish is often eaten as breakfast or reserved for celebratory times, says Washington, but at Queen of Sheeba should be savored last. 

By Nicole Danna |

Down a one-way street in a sleepy residential neighborhood just beyond the hustle and bustle of downtown West Palm Beach, you’ll find something unique and unexpected cooking at the Ethiopian restaurant Queen of Sheeba.

Here, chef-owner Lojo Washington is dishing out the heavily spiced fare of her homeland, everything from wot, siga tibs, and alitcha to kifto and fitfit. A tiny woman with sparkling eyes, a shy smile, and a soft voice, she is the opposite of the flavors she creates, which are big, bold, and assertively spicy.

On a quiet evening, the eight-table restaurant is a beacon of light on an otherwise dim-lit street, right smack in the heart of one of the city’s historic neighborhoods. Inside, an open kitchen and quiet dining room exude homespun charm, lit by low-hanging chandeliers that cast a soft amber glow over rustic wood tables set with mismatched glassware and a vase of wildflowers.

You’ll feel right at home, but the fragrant, spiced air emanating from Washington’s stovetop will remind you that you’re no longer in South Florida.

Instead, Washington will transport you to the streets of Jimma, the large city in Southwest Ethiopia from which she hails. It was here, before she immigrated to New York from Ethiopia in the early 1980s to pursue a career in nursing, that Washington learned to cook at her mother’s side. When she relocated to Florida in 1987, Washington stayed in her chosen field, but always dreamed of working her own kitchen, she says.

Queen of Sheeba chef-owner Lojo Washington in her West Palm Beach restaurant (PHOTO: Nicole Danna)

Queen of Sheeba chef-owner Lojo Washington in her West Palm Beach restaurant (PHOTO: Nicole Danna)

It took nearly two decades before she opened Queen of Sheeba in 2006; drawing on her mother’s recipes and tutelage, the self-made chef began her business as a small takeout-only establishment that specialized not in her native cuisine, but soul-food-style eats like fried fish and chicken meant to cater to the local community. Several months ago, Washington decided to expand the restaurant and offer Ethiopian fare via a more formal, sit-down establishment.

“I had a vision to do this, to cook Ethiopian food here,” says Washington. who celebrated a grand re-opening of the new expanded concept in September. “I thought, Why not take advantage of my heritage and bring something to the area that no one else is doing?

Today, Washington’s menu is utterly unique to the area, not just in terms of concept but also execution. The food doesn’t revolve around the changing seasons. The dishes don’t change. There are no specials. And the menu doesn’t rely much on local sourcing. In fact, the very air is heavy with pungent spices, all of which Washington says she brought to the United States after a recent trip to Ethiopia. That includes red chili powder, cumin, and cardamom from her village in Jimma, and turmeric — a neon orange the color of Cheetos — that has been growing wild in her mother’s backyard for decades.

Her vegetable-heavy menu will draw its fare share of vegans and vegetarians. It’s not fad or fashion here, however, but representative of a country where religion plays a major role in much of its cuisine. During Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, says Washington, while the other half of the population — mainly Orthodox Christians — abstain from eating meat or animal products every Wednesday and Friday, and for the 55 days leading up to Ethiopian Easter.

The qategna from Queen of Sheeba in West Palm Beach (PHOTO: Queen of Sheeba)

The qategna from Queen of Sheeba in West Palm Beach (PHOTO: Queen of Sheeba)

As a result, some of Ethiopia’s most popular dishes are made up entirely of legumes. Among the most common are misser (a spicy lentil curry), gomen (sautéed collard greens), and shiro (a simple chickpea purée). If all of this sounds foreign to you, don’t worry: The menu does a good job of describing Washington’s dishes, listed in Amharic, her country’s main language.

If you’re feeling adventurous the vegetable sampler will allow you to try several dishes at once, served on a long platter with tight rolls of spongy injera, tart, crepe-like pancakes made from teff flour and form the basis of Ethiopian cuisine. Such a presentation gives “sharing plates” a whole new meaning, selections served in heaping piles on a single tray and plopped down at the center of a table without side plates or cutlery.

In place of spoons or forks, you’ll use injera — its rubbery texture is the perfect tool for scooping and scraping the multicolored mounds of spicy stews, curries, and greens in true Ethiopian fashion.

It’s messy and awkward for a first-timer. And these aren’t pretty dishes, plated just so or drizzled with some kind of reduction. Rather, most of the food is made up of mushy stewed vegetables in muted shades of green and brown. Just don’t let appearances deceive you; the flavors are beautifully complex.

You can start with any wot, a vegetable stew of sorts. A red lentil one — misir — is seasoned with red pepper, garlic, and ginger. Sautéed greens known as gomen feature collards cooked with an Ethiopian-style spiced butter flavored with cardamom, fenugreek, and nigella seeds. The ater kik alicha wot is a mouthful to say but easier to swallow: a mild split pea stew similar to Indian daal. And shiro wot is the most friendly, a bowl of lightly seasoned ground chick peas cooked with onion.

Washington suggests ending the meal with doro wot, as close as Ethiopia comes to a national dish. It’s one of only three meat dishes you’ll find on the menu at Queen of Sheeba, a plump chicken leg stewed in a dense broth until the meat splits from the bone in tender slivers. It’s served in a deep ceramic bowl with a single hardboiled egg, its flesh tinged an angry red-brown from the puddle spiced, chili-powdersauce known as berbere that’s thickened with butter and spiked with cardamom, onion, and pepper.

The dish is often eaten as breakfast or reserved for celebratory times, says Washington, but at Queen of Sheeba should be savored last.

Queen of Sheeba
716 N. Sapodilla Ave., West Palm Beach. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Call 561-514-0615, or visit $4 | Vegetable sampler $15 | Doro wot $15 | Coffee $3

Nicole Danna is a food writer covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on the BPB New Times Food & Drink Instagram

Source: New Times Broward-Palm Beach
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