‘Queen’ of eatery hopes to change hearts, minds one dish at a time

In a neglected corner of town, Lojo Washington opens an unlikely Ethiopian restaurant.

Some nights, it feels like a dream. Lojo Washington may be in her small, well-stocked kitchen, preparing the flour for her spongey, delicately sour Ethiopian injera bread, when she stops to take in the quiet.

There’s no bustle in the dining room, no opening and closing of the door, no “Lojo! Where’s my sweet potato pie?” Instead, she’ll find the wee-hour hush from the stretch of ramshackle homes outside has filtered into her restaurant, Queen of Sheeba.

This hush settles upon the walls she painted a deep, creamy shade of gray, upon the floors she rescued and polished, upon each of the hand-picked native artifacts that fill her shelves, upon the brilliant rows of chunky, jewel-toned drinking glasses she’s collected throughout the years, and the brick-lined patio out back where herbs tumble out of garden pots.

Photos: Queen of Sheeba eatery

This place, the restaurant she opened in September in West Palm Beach’s Northwest Historic District, is more than a business to her. It is her slice of America. This is where Washington, the Ethiopian-born nurse, wife, woman of faith, came to be a “Queen.”

She is a queen who wears a white baseball cap instead of a crown and earned her regal distinction from the ground up.

Like much of the neighborhood, the corner space where she built South Florida’s only Ethiopian restaurant, a former garage, had fallen to neglect and inertia. It sits in the two-square-mile stretch north of CityPlace and Clematis Street, an area rattled by more than two dozen gang-related shootings this summer alone.

Long before she opened the eatery, Washington would drive to this street to sweep the sidewalks, pick up trash, and meet those who would become her neighbors.

“People would ask me, ‘Why are you always here, cleaning?’ I fell in love with them. They are good people. I would chat with them, get to know them. They would tell me what they used to do, and who they used to be,” says Washington, who would come to operate a Southern-style soul food, takeout counter for nine years in a narrow part of the location before expanding and transforming the space into a full-service, gracefully appointed Ethiopian restaurant.

In the dramatic expansion, soul food dishes like neck bones and rice were replaced by Ethiopian doro wot (chicken stewed in a robust chili sauce), and Southern fried fish was replaced by asa tibs (sautéed fish cubes with onions, peppers and tomatoes). There would be new flavors like cardamom, ginger, clarified butter, and there would be Ethiopian beer and honey wine.

But somehow customers could detect familiar notes in those new dishes with the African names. Soul food lovers could recognize their cherished collards in Washington’s “gomen” dish, sautéed collard greens with garlic and green pepper. Legume fans could find warm comfort in a clay dish of “shiro wot,” seasoned ground chickpeas.

And certainly they could still find Lojo Washington’s mega-watt smile, her cheerful presence and gentle questions.

She knows her customers

When the old customers come by asking for their soul food favorites, like the sweet potato pie that’s no longer on the menu, Washington offers: “How would you like to try Ethiopian food?”

Most are willing.

Longtime customer Leonard H. Williams, 63, stepped into the restaurant’s foyer on a recent weekday, steadying himself with a cane. He found Washington ready with a warm greeting. She knew Williams walked many blocks to reach her front door. She knew his ailing mother was waiting for him back home. By glancing at the gauze patch on his right arm, she could tell his own medical woes were ongoing.

Washington disappeared into her kitchen to prepare the man’s takeout order of fish and collard greens, while he sat to cool off and take in the new setting.

“It’s nice. It’s really nice here,” he said when asked how he liked the new restaurant.

A little while later, Washington appeared with the customer’s two-container order, packed into a plastic takeout bag.

“Tell Mama I say hello,” she told the man, who was still seated in her small waiting area.

“Yes, I will.”

“Are you still going to dialyses?” she asked.

“Yes, still going.”

“That’s good,” she said, leaning down a bit, as if in a slight bow toward her customer. “I appreciate you.”

The details Lojo Washington knows about her customers extend beyond dietary preferences or tipping habits. She knows who is struggling, who traveled for miles, whose cupboard is bare.

“God is going to bless her. There is not a hungry person who comes to this door that Lojo Washington does not feed. They call her the Queen,” says Mayra Morrison, a West Palm Beach web designer and branding specialist who visits Washington at the restaurant often.

In many ways, Washington is still that surgical nurse, only now she dispenses food and good wishes instead of medication. Her sense of caregiving has carried over from one career to another.

Washington’s job as a nurse brought her much satisfaction, but it never brought her the feeling that comes on those quiet nights when she’s alone in the kitchen, tracing the arc of her life, from the Ethiopian highlands to this modest corner of North Sapodilla Avenue and Seventh Street.

“I loved nursing, but this is my passion,” she says, beaming beneath the brim of that trademark white cap.

Building a business from scratch

“This” refers to more than the brick-and-mortar building she liberated from the recurring grasp of drug addicts. “This” refers to the fact that she can labor in a trance of memory and purpose, cooking the foods of her homeland. It means she can feed people, body and soul.

Ethiopian food is an ideal vehicle for this mission. The food is meant to be shared, savored with torn pieces of injera bread that serve as extensions of your fingers. It’s an intimate and seemingly casual dining experience, but it’s also one that’s steeped in the venerated traditions of her homeland.

She was born Lojo Shone and raised in western Ethiopia’s largest city, Jimma, a large university town in the province of Kaffa, where coffee is said to have originated. One of seven remaining siblings (one sibling died), Washington has two brothers in Uganda, one sister in Italy, and three sisters in the United States.

She left Ethiopia for New York in the late 1980s, and made her way to South Florida four years later to settle into a new life as a Registered Nurse. A tax appointment with a local CPA would change her life. She fell in love with Bill Washington, the tax man. They married in 1999.

Theirs would be a match made in culinary heaven. Lojo took delight in exploring her husband’s New Orleans roots. She learned to make Creole dishes from her mother-in-law.

One dish at a time, she built a sturdy repertoire of soul food dishes. In 2006, she opened the Queen of Sheeba takeout counter on Sapodilla Avenue, in a space she and her husband had purchased years earlier. They invested in a district that had endured shootings, neglect, even a spate of arsonist-set fires in 2001.

But there was history here. Just one block north sits the (now revamped) Sunset Lounge, which dates back to 1933 and once hosted American jazz stars like Count Basie and Duke Ellington. Thanks to their soul food business, Lojo and Bill Washington would become fixtures at local festivals celebrating the district’s history. Through their spicy chicken wings and po’ boys, they would come to be known by local residents and dignitaries.

And in time, Lojo Washington came to be known as a woman with a plan.

“I had a vision for this place. I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” she says.

Design-wise, she knew she wanted to expand, to fill the space with hand-picked artifacts and the aroma of Ethiopian spices. She did just that with a $66,000 grant from the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency. She and her husband supplemented that grant to remodel the place. They installed windows, doors, lighting fixtures and smart, black awnings out front. Lojo refinished the concrete floors, painted the walls, and added handmade touches. She scrubbed reclaimed wood beams and hardware store plywood with vinegar and steel wool to coax an ash gray finish. She made shelves of the heavier wood and menu boards from the plywood. She decided to display only those items dear to her, which is why every item has a story.

The new dining room that extends to the north of the former takeout counter has become a destination for Ethiopian food fans from all over South Florida, a meeting spot for downtown professionals and an Instagram-worthy stop for foodies, as Washington’s plate presentations are stunning. Her platters combine the brilliant greens of chili sauce, the soft, neat rolls of native bread, the earthy legumes in traditional clay vessels. Her server, jewelry maker Mumbi O’Brien, offers napkins upon small woven baskets and serves tea in dainty cups.

But these formal touches are not meant to drive a wedge between establishment and community. To the contrary, they are gestures of respect, even reverence for a community that welcomed Washington and continues to inspire her.

When she first opened the takeout counter, the flow of new regulars brought her face to face with family realities. She was drawn to the children, who seemed full of questions and eager to learn. She started a book club for them after school. They would come to the eatery, do their homework and read.

“They grew and moved on,” she recalled on a recent day.

There was one group of four or five school-age children she remembers with particular fondness. They would come to the counter to buy food for their mother.

“They lived in that house right over there,” she said, pointing to a two-story structure just northwest of her front door. “While they waited for me to prepare their food, I would give each a small cup of tea.”

The children would watch her and ask questions. One day, one of them asked the question that still haunts her: “What do you do with your leftovers?”

She came to realize the children were not only hungry, but living with some 14 people in a house without electricity. From then on, while she prepared their mother’s takeout food every day, she would give them food to eat at the counter. She wanted to make sure they were not hungry when they left her business.

“This was about seven years ago. I heard they were evicted,” she said.

The house, within view from Washington’s front window, from inside her dream restaurant, stands as a reminder of the stories she doesn’t always see at first. These are the stories that reveal themselves and fill her heart with the warmth of fresh-made stew.

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