If you agree that immigrants enrich our community, you can guess that the way to the hearts of Arlingtoners is through our stomachs.
I got a taste of this phenomenon last month when I enjoyed an Ethiopian-style spinach sambusa, marble cake and latte at Dama Pastry Restaurant and Café.
This ethnic cooking success story at 1505 Columbia Pike, near the Air Force Memorial, does more than its part to localize the traditionally mellow culture of this East African nation.
I have long loved Ethiopian cuisine, with its spongy injera bread that you sensually handle instead of a fork to devour spicy meat and vegetable stews by hand. The influx of Ethiopians to our region over the past decades is evident in the refugee settlement agency located just off the Pike called the Ethiopian Community Development Council.
And my own experience, as a frequent taxi user before I retired as a reporter downtown, is that a huge percentage of these hard-working drivers are from Addis Ababa or the surrounding area.
Columbia Pike, one of our county’s oldest thoroughfares and now Arlington’s Diversity Corridor, is home to several Ethiopian restaurants, including Ethio Café and Greens N Teff in Columbia Heights, and, just past the Falls Church line, Meaza Restaurant.
At Dama’s cafe, on that crowded Monday lunchtime, I reveled in African music in stereo amid two dozen customers – their mutual familiarity suggests they are regulars.
On the walls are original paintings of the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, President Obama and, as another sign of Americanization, the Pittsburgh Steelers jacket of a deceased friend. A community bulletin board announces distance learning opportunities and health services. In the next room is a counter selling books, CDs, spices and injera bread in plastic bags.
In the quieter room of the restaurant (open in the evening), I chatted with Hailu Dama, the manager who came to the United States in 1981. He runs the business with his sister, the baker Almaz Dama, who arrived in 1974.
What in 1998 started out as a restaurant expanded in 2000 to include a cafe, named after their “good soul” father, who died in 1967. In 20 years, they expanded their main activity to the restaurant business, Hailu explains. , for graduation ceremonies, baptisms and memorial services. Although guests are predominantly Ethiopians, they serve many American companies, including the nearby Sheraton Hotel skyscraper. Dama offers jobs for 10 to 15 full-time employees, as well as part-time catering employees.
The menu is a lesson in intercultural awareness. You can experiment with fir (a breakfast dish like Huevos Rancheros), or kitifo (ground beef tartare) or Doro Wot chicken stew. But you can also get good old-fashioned egg sandwiches, fries, split peas, and seafood.
Along with the fancy coffees come pies and cakes, in white and dark chocolate, as well as cream puffs, Italian rum, and lemon and raspberry pastries.
Hailu, who lives in Annandale (Arlington, he notes, has become very expensive), expresses concern when I ask about the tragic ethnic violence over the past two years in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. “The United States should do more,” replies Hailu, who is visiting the homeland.
As for Covid, Hailu reports that their restaurant closed for the first two months in 2020, then partially opened when the county allowed them to fill 10 seats. “The help we received from the county was incredible,” he added. “I am so happy to be working in Arlington County.”
As our increasingly expensive county contemplates zoning for more “accessory housing units,” a friend’s family legacy deserves to be noted.
Diane Doughty Pollack, who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in three different houses in Arlington, tells me that her father built not one but three cabins in the three backyards. One at 3400 N. Edison St., another at 2704 N. Lexington St. and a third at 369 N. Granada St.
Her father’s DIY construction was obviously done with care: six decades later, they’re still standing.