Michigan’s Best Local Eats: Authentic Ethiopian restaurant creates vegetarian fare in Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Don’t judge a book by its cover, or a restaurant by its front door.

Little Africa Cuisine, a “small, unassuming storefront,” serves authentic Ethiopian food at 956 Fulton St. E. in Grand Rapids.

“We don’t advertise,” owner Loul Negash said. “It’s word of mouth… and our customers are loyal.”

Called “Lou” by many of customers, Negash said Little Africa focuses on a small amount of entrées, and does it well, and that’s the way he likes it.

Negash personally likes the “very tasty” Shiro, an Ethiopian chickpea entrée which includes sun dried, well-seasoned chickpea flour sauce, simmered with fresh onion and minced garlic.

All single item entrées come with traditional Ethiopian injera bread, a pancake-like flatbread made from fermented teff batter for $8. Two items cost $10.50, three items are $12.50.

Alicha, another favorite, is a fresh mix of potatoes, carrots, and cabbage with green beans, onion, garlic, and rosemary.

Soy Curry, a medium spicy entrée, features ground soy beans well-seasoned with chili sauce, cumin, curry, and cayenne.

Little Africa also serves Azifa, Kik, Gomen, Mesir, Firfir and Ethiopian salad.

Kay Ser (sliced or chopped beets with red onion, garlic, and a touch of Ethiopian cayenne); and Duba (mashed butternut squash and pumpkin mixed with onion, garlic, ginger, and seasoned lightly with a variety of spices) are both seasonal dishes.

The injera is used to scoop up the food without silverware. A “finger bowl” filled with warm water is given to customers to rinse their hands as they eat.

Every item on the menu is both vegan and vegetarian. Gluten-free teff bread can be provided instead of injera bread for $3.

Menu items can be custom-made, including adjusting spice levels indicated on the menu.

Ethiopian Harrar or Ethiopian Yirgachefe coffee is served for $3 per person.

A customer favorite is the jasmine tea with blended seasonings, also served for $3 per person.

“It’s got eight or more different seasonings combined,” Negash said of the tea. “(Some) people just come for the tea.”

Mango or guava juice ($3) and Coke product soft drinks ($1.50) round out the beverage menu.

Customers can select a one-person combo with four entrée items, extra injera bread and extra tea or coffee (if ordered) for $13.50.

Many restaurant-goers select the group platter that includes “a healthy portion” of each entrée with extra injera bread and extra tea or coffee (if ordered) for $12.50 per person. The group platter can be ordered with a minimum of two people, or a maximum of six people.

The deluxe combo platter includes a combo platter with choice of soup and drink for each person for $18.50 per person.

Ethiopian lentil soup ($4 individually) and spicy tomato soup ($5 individually) are served medium, hot or “Ethiopian hot.”

Negash originally opened an African art shop at the location called Teshlou Import in 1999. After a few years, Negash eventually began serving tea, then food, and evolved into the restaurant about 20 years ag

Negash was born and raised in Ethiopia, then briefly stayed in Sudan before coming to the U.S. in his early 20s as an immigrant about 40 years ago.

Some of Little Africa’s customers who have enjoyed the authentic food, culture and atmosphere of Little Africa have grown up and moved away to other states still keep in touch, which makes him teary-eyed with happiness, he said.

“It’s not about the money,” he said. “We’re just happy to have friendships with customers.”

Rarely taking vacations, Negash said he has operated the business by himself, sometimes with the help of his son and his wife, Emeyenesh Yehune, who helps with the cooking.

Little Africa Cuisine is open Tuesday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. – 9 p.m. Negash said if the day is slow he may close early so customers could call ahead at 616-222-1169. Little Africa was formerly a cash-only establishment but now also accepts debit and credit cards.

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