Zemam's Ethiopian Cuisine opened in a small house on Broadway Boulevard in 1994.
It would take almost 17 years for Tucson to get another restaurant, Café Desta, which serves Ethiopian staples like injera (flatbread) and doro wat (chicken stew).
Café Desta, at 758 S. Stone Ave., opened Dec. 1, 2010, and happiness is key here—both because of the meaning of its Amharic name, Desta, and the welcoming natures of its two owners, Brooke and Telahoun Molla.
The pair met on Fourth Avenue "many, many ... many years ago," according to Brooke. She was studying linguistics at the University of Arizona when she met Telahoun. Once she fell in love with the Ethiopian man, her love for the food soon followed—and with it came a desire to open up a place to share the food of her husband's heritage.
After opening a successful restaurant in Tempe, Café Lalibela, the Mollas decided to open a restaurant back home. The Mollas originally wanted to open a restaurant in a building on the avenue where they met, but instead, they waited for the right opportunity, and wound up taking "a derelict eyesore of a building, and we're renovating it," Brooke Molla said of the home of Café Desta.
"We tried to keep the environment comfortable and relaxed. I'm always happy to see when people come in, and they're not sure about (the food)," Brooke Molla said. "I always wonder what brought them in, and then you see all of their anxieties melt away at that first bite."
A couple also heads up Zemam's.
"I told (my mother) that one day, I'm going to own a restaurant," said Amanuel Gebremariam, owner and operator of what was Tucson's only Ethiopian restaurant for years. "I don't care how many restaurants there are. I wanted to open my own."
Gebremariam sat by his mother's side and learned to cook. He shared that love of Ethiopian cuisine with Cindy, his wife, whom he met in 1983 in a refugee camp in eastern Sudan. They would move to Washington D.C., and Nouakchott, Mauritania (in West Africa) before heading to Tucson.
"My hesitation at the beginning was: Who would know about Ethiopia?" Amanuel Gebremariam said. "When I first started (Zemam's), there was a famine in Ethiopia, and they were showing poor people, starving people, in Ethiopia. One guy on the TV said, 'What do they have to eat in Ethiopia? I don't think they have anything.' To him, it was a joke."
Gebremariam started the business using his mother's recipes. He rented out the small Broadway Boulevard home and converted it into a tiny restaurant.
He said he is happy to see a second Ethiopian restaurant in town.
"I'm glad they are open. Competition always gives you an idea on how you are doing, and it keeps you ready," he said.
Could Tucson handle even more Ethiopian restaurants? Gebremariam said he thinks so.
"How many Chinese restaurants are there in Tucson? How many Cuban? Mongolian? Mexican?" he said. "You have to be competitive. There's nothing to fear."
Brooke Molla hesitates to compare Café Desta to any other restaurant. When asked what makes Desta special, her response was shy. "I don't know," Molla said. "I don't want to brag."
However, Molla takes great pride in the café's vegetarian options, as well as the injera, a flatbread made out of a small cereal grain called teff.
Desta plans to begin serving gluten-free injera as well. Molla said she realizes the importance of having gluten-free food and pushes for even more vegetarian options on their menu.
Both restaurants boast a communal dining style and a focus on the healthy.
"Some repeat customers come at lunch and dinner the same day. Some people come twice a week. Some people come once a month," Molla said about Café Desta's customers. "The clientele comes from all over Tucson. It's not just from one economic area. Students, artists, professionals, people from the eastside, people from Davis-Monthan (Air Force Base)—people from everywhere."
Gebremariam had similar things to say about Zemam's clientele. "(Customers come) from all parts of society. I don't have a particular segment. It's all. ... It's a small restaurant, but I'm always full to capacity."