KQED's San Jose: The Bay Area's Great Immigrant Food City is a series of stories exploring San Jose's wonderfully diverse immigrant food scene. A new installment will post each weekday from Oct. 20–29.
eeping a restaurant afloat through a pandemic might not be easy. But for Zeni Gebremariam, owner of Zeni Ethiopian Restaurant, it doesn’t come close to being the biggest challenge she’s faced: Long before she even thought about opening a restaurant, Gebremariam had to help the love of her life escape from a prison camp in Ethiopia just to have the chance to leave the country. It has been a long road to success.
Today, visitors know they’ve arrived at Gebremariam’s restaurant well before they enter its doors. There’s an aromatic warmth that trails off from the kitchen’s bubbling clay pots and sizzling cast iron pans and into the surrounds of the neighborhood—the scent of cardamom pods, paprika, caramelizing onions and freshly cut hot peppers.
Nestled in an unassuming row of small businesses in the westside of San Jose, Zeni has built an outsized reputation in the Bay Area: Many in the community confidently say it’s the most exceptional Ethiopian restaurant in Northern California.
“You know you’ve arrived when your Ethiopian wedding or event has Zeni as your caterer,” says Yemi Getachew, a San Jose-based immigration lawyer. “People won't miss it because they don’t want to miss out on the food.”
In many ways, it makes sense that the Bay Area’s finest Ethiopian restaurants would be located in San Jose. The first wave of Ethiopian immigrants and refugees arrived in the United States in the ’80s and ’90s, fleeing the long civil war back home. These newcomers built up particularly strong bases in places like Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Minneapolis and the Bay Area.
In the case of the San Jose area, specifically, the first dot-com bubble in the mid ’90s created a demand for an incredible amount of labor to build the electronic components for personal computers, which were quickly becoming a domestic necessity in American homes. Companies like IBM and Cisco went on a hiring spree to keep up with the demand, coinciding with the surge of new immigrants. Ethiopians came to Silicon Valley to take these jobs, and many ended up staying in the area. According to some estimates, the Ethiopian population has swelled to roughly 25,000 in Santa Clara County alone.
But what makes Zeni so uniquely special isn’t just a matter of demographics. Instead, there’s a love story at the heart of the restaurant.
Before Gebremariam and her late husband Abebaw “Muna” Feki opened their restaurant almost 20 years ago, they first had to risk their lives to be together. As a member of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP) when he was just a teenager, Feki fought against the Derg, the oppressive military regime that governed Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991. When Feki wound up getting captured, Gebremariam—who was already married to him at the time—immediately started working with Feki's family on a scheme to free him.
“His family found a guard to bribe, so when he escaped, the camp never knew he was missing,” Gebremariam recalls. These days, she’s an unflappable veteran of the restaurant industry, but at the time she was just a scared kid. Even then, however, Gebremariam was incredibly clever and resourceful.
Back in Addis Ababa, the teenage lovers decided that the only way to ensure their safety was to flee the country altogether. But it wasn’t until the Derg’s crushing rule was nearly over that they were able to make it to Kenya. Gebremariam went ahead to Nairobi first and found a house while Feki finished school. Eventually, he was able to join her, having secured a temporary stay as an agricultural specialist. Once they both got out of Ethiopia they applied for resettlement in the U.S., which was granted to them in 1991.
After the young couple arrived in San Jose, Feki took one of those tech jobs building semiconductors for IBM. After long shifts, he would come home and shuttle orders of homemade Ethiopian food that Gebremariam had made—she’d started a small, informal business catering to other Ethiopians hungry for a taste of home. Eventually, Feki was so inspired by his wife’s passion for cooking that he quit his job and mortgaged the house. He spent the remaining years of his life helping Gebremariam realize her vision of opening and running a successful restaurant.
“[Feki] absolutely loved and adored his wife and wanted to give her whatever it was she wanted,” Getachew, the immigration lawyer, says. “He became the backbone to her dream, and out of that, Zeni Restaurant was born.”
ake no mistake about it, though: Zeni is Gebremariam’s success story through and through. These days, everyone in the Ethiopian community knows about the restaurant, often traveling from distant corners of the Bay just to enjoy a meal. For many years it was one of the only Ethiopian restaurants recommended by the Bay Area edition of the Michelin Guide. Zeni is known for its stunning interior, too: Inside, natural light floods into the space during the day, illuminating the dense, colorful textures of traditional textiles, cultural artifacts and the handmade thatched hut that is the centerpiece of the dining room. The all-female staff works with a level of such collective grace that they almost seem choreographed.
And then, of course, there’s the food, which is spectacular. The base of every order should be the restaurant’s vegetarian combo, a special assortment of five vegetable dishes, each with its own distinct character. For her atakelt wot, for instance, Gebremariam slightly caramelizes cabbage, potatoes and carrots, then enrobes the trio in a delicate turmeric broth. The beg tibs—Getachew’s favorite—is made with cubes of fresh lamb that have been lightly fried in spiced clarified butter called niter kibbeh and tossed with sweet white onions and green peppers.
You can amplify any of the meat dishes with a fiery spice blend called mitmita, which is made with a base of piri piri peppers and acts as the perfect dip for any of the kitfo options on the menu. Gebremariam is originally from the lush Gurage region, an area in central Ethiopia that’s famous for kitfo, making Zeni a destination for the specialty dish. It’s made with succulent cuts of beef or chicken that are minced and then hand-mixed with aromatic niter kibbeh. Every dish has a comforting quality that's more like home cooking than restaurant food.
“I didn't go to culinary school, and I learned everything by watching my mother cook,” Gebremariam says.
The restaurant itself is a pillar of the Santa Clara County Ethiopian community. Gebremariam is known for helping new immigrants get settled in the area, helping them find affordable housing and work. According to Getachew, “Whenever someone in the community faces an adversity, like a death or a sickness in the family, Zeni has always gone to their home with food.”
One sign of how beloved the restaurant is among Ethiopians in San Jose: There are almost always one or two yellow cabs parked right outside while the owners enjoy a quick meal—taxi driving being one of the most common professions for Ethiopians when they first immigrate to the U.S.
And it isn’t just Ethiopians who love Zeni. According to Gebremariam, people from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds have flocked to the restaurant since the day it opened its doors. “When you look around the restaurant, especially on the weekend, it's like the United Nations. You see people from all walks of life. It’s so diverse that it’s almost unbelievable,” she says.
In a way, this isn’t surprising: Part of Ethiopia’s history is its connection to ancient maritime spice routes that linked the East with the West. This is why the cuisine features ingredients—cumin, turmeric, cloves and fenugreek—that have a botanical origin as far away as Southeast Asia. It’s food with true international appeal.
For many customers, though, this is their first exposure to Ethiopian food. And Zeni is a hospitable place for novices to the cuisine too. The waitstaff is well practiced with their patient charade of the correct techniques for eating the injera—the crepe-like bread made with fermented teff grain—that’s used to scoop up different dishes. They explain how it’s used in place of utensils, adding a special nuance to the dining experience. (According to Gebremariam, using your hands makes whatever you’re eating taste more delicious.)
Zeni is also one of just a handful of places in the Bay Area where you can experience a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Ethiopia is famously the birthplace of both the coffee plant and coffee culture—it’s the world’s only coffee-growing country that consumes more of the crop than it exports. At Zeni, a whole portion of the restaurant is dedicated to the ritual. During each brew, clouds of frankincense and myrrh billow from a piece of charcoal, commingling with the smell of the roasting coffee that’s prepared in the same space. Guests are served one by one, just like how someone in Addis Ababa would do if a close friend or family member stops by for a chat.
“To me, cooking and feeding people is an art, and I love what I do because of that,” Gebremariam says. “Cooking and representing my country is my passion.”
s is the case for so many restaurants, the pandemic has been a blow to the business. Zeni closed for two months when the statewide stay-at-home orders first went into effect, and even after it reopened, people seemed to want to order takeout instead of dining in. Before the pandemic, Gebremariam recalls, “There was an hour-and-a-half wait, and now it’s not too busy.” She misses the days when some guests would fly to San Jose just to try her food.
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Still, Gebremariam remains optimistic. Her son Zeru Feki says she could simply step away from the restaurant now without major repercussions. But she doesn’t want to. “What really stands out is her resiliency throughout this whole thing,” Zeru proudly says of his mother.
This isn’t the only time Zeni has faced a monumental transition. The first was when Feki passed away in 2010 after an intense five-year battle with cancer. In many ways, though, the love that he and Gebremariam shared continues to be the foundation of what makes the restaurant a special place.
One way you see that love express itself at the restaurant is through “gorsha,” an Ethiopian tradition of feeding one another mouthfuls of food by hand. At Zeni, you might see this loving gesture for yourself if you let your eyes follow the laughter. Often the person offering the gorsha makes the bite almost impossible to eat in one go—a challenge that the eater might accept with a coy smile. It’s just one of many acts of care that you might experience during a meal at Zeni—moments when you’ll feel an intimate warmth at the dinner table.
Tana Yonas is a Berkeley and Los Angeles–based artist and writer who explores the culture and stories of under-represented communities through the lens of food and music. She’s a regular contributor for the popular vinyl cultural outfit In Sheep’s Clothing HiFi and a resident of Radio Alhara in Palestine. Follow her on Instagram @passionfruit.wav.
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