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A melody of flavors hits Sarasota

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On the drive up North Tamiami Trail toward the overpass that we call home, a new landmark appeared among the familiar neon signs of Yummy House, Walmart Neighborhood Market and all those motels. Yellow and red letters boasted “A melody of flavors from around the world.” Where Gold Dynasty, a dim sum favorite, used to stand is now Queen of Sheba.

Sarasota’s ethnic food scene usually leaves something to be desired. While my summer was spent watching Anthony Bourdain, I longed for the flavors of Africa, South America and Asia. A bit sick of getting my fix at Pho Cali and India Palace downtown, I did some research on Queen of Sheba.

Owner Seble Gizaw is a native of Kaffa, Ethiopia, and brought her passion of Ethiopian flavors to Tampa with great success in Queen of Sheba’s premier location.

There has been a dearth of Ethiopian food in Sarasota since the closing of The Fly. Located where Growler’s Pub is now, The Fly served up Ethiopian favorites along with a full bar and pool tables. Closed for nearly ten years, Ethiopian food has – until now – been a drive to Tampa away.

Queen of Sheba offers more traditional decor inside, despite its intriguing sign out front. Nowhere outside denotes that Queen of Sheba is an Ethiopian restaurant. This former fast-food restaurant still has a (non-functioning) drive-thru, but the interior, with bright orange napkins, posters from Gizaw’s home and a traditional Ethiopian table setting used for coffee ceremonies is halfway around the globe from the building’s previous Chinese decor.

Stepping inside feels a bit like entering Gizaw’s own home, as she welcomes every customer with a warm smile. It also feels a bit like entering another world, as unfamiliar aromas and artifacts from Ethiopia fill the senses.

Queen of Sheba’s menu presents not only dining choices, but an introduction to Ethiopian food, welcoming the diner to have a “flavorful adventure.” First, we learn that Ethiopian cuisine is not eaten with utensils, but neatly scooped up with Ethiopian food’s classic, delicious injera. The menu states, “It is a cross between an American pancake, a French crepe, and a Middle Eastern pita. It is soft and spongy and designed to sop up the juices from the stews.”

The introduction is signed with Gizaw’s first name, as if she’s already a close friend. Watching the colorful owner laugh and discuss with customers, it appears that she is already acquainted with all those dining in her restaurant.

As a struggling vegan, I appreciated the menu’s clear declaration that all meatless dishes are also vegan. Indeed, the menu consisted of almost half vegetarian entrees. The injera, made in house, is also gluten free, along with most of the menu. I ordered the “Queen’s Platter,” a smorgasboard of the eight best vegetarian options. I did not even ask the name of the dishes I received, simply ate and enjoyed the warm flavors.

Ethiopian menus usually offer a variety of stews and sauces, rich in spices. I received lentils, split peas, cabbage, carrots and more, with just enough of each option to have a hearty taste and then try something new.

For many, Queen of Sheba will be an exciting new culinary experience, a true adventure of the tastebuds. Gizaw’s recipes are refreshingly free from American influence, when some of the most authentic restaurants around have become Americanized. Gizaw imports many items on her menu, including coffee, spices and tea, but uses local sources for meat and vegetables.

Pricing at Queen of Sheba is per person, although food is mainly served family-style in the middle of the table. Entrees can be $10 to $15 but I definitely advise starting with a savory, filled sambussa pastry for $3.50 more.

 

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