Hands-On Culture

By Valerie Vinyard

Queen Sheba owner serves up delectable Eritrean dishes

Forget about using utensils when dining at Queen Sheba.

Like Ethiopian food, many Eritrean dishes are meant to be eaten with your hands.

Of course, the savory dishes get a big assist in eating the meal from tasty, spongey injera bread. Injera is a tangy sourdough flatbread that diners tear into pieces and use to scoop up food.

On a map, the country of Eritrea is perched on top of the much-larger Ethiopia, like whipped cream on a sundae.

You can see that map inside Tucson’s first and only Eritrean restaurant, Queen Sheba, which opened January 2018. The almost 1,500-square-foot restaurant is located in a strip mall at 5553 E. Grant Road, just east of Tucson Medical Center.

In a city with many ethnic eateries representing a vast number of countries and cuisines, Queen Sheba offers a unique appeal with a family setting and well-priced dishes.

With three Ethiopian restaurants in town — Zemam’s, Zemam’s Too and Café Desta — a fair share of people in Tucson have eaten Ethiopian food. Eritrean food is similar to Ethiopian dishes but also heavily is influenced by Italian cuisine.

Eritrea native Welday Gezehen is the restaurant’s owner and chef. Gezehen and his family moved to the United States in 2009. The 42-year-old and his wife now have five children, ranging in age from 5 to 12 years old.

When he moved to Tucson, Gezehen worked at Omni Tucson National Resort. He then served as an assistant manager at Zemam’s Too for three years, and then became a driver for Blackjack Pizza. After all of that experience, it was then Gezehen decided to open his own restaurant.

The restaurant, which seats 38, has white tables and white walls lined with Eritrean art. A television in the corner plays Eritrean music videos. Queen Sheba accepts reservations and offers catering.

While Queen Sheba is a Biblical and Quranic figure, the restaurant name is also a tribute to Gezehen’s wife Negesti Gebrmichael and his niece, Saba.

Gezehen orders his spices from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Mexico. One of the most prominent spices in Eritrean cuisine is berbere, a blend of peppers, garlic, ginger, basil and other spices.

For first-timers, Gezehen encouraged an open mind when it comes to choosing a dish.

“If you are ready for anything, it is easy,” he says.

Perhaps the best way to first experience Eritrean food is to order a combination platter. Both the meat and veggie combos ($10 small; $12 large) each come with four smaller portions of dishes and offer diners the chance to sample a variety of items. Dishes include spicy beef, boneless chicken, lamb and alicha, which is a mild yet flavorful yellow split pea curry. A plate of injera accompanies each. And yes, utensils are available for the less adventurous.

More seasoned diners might try one of 14 other dishes offered, including several vegetarian and vegan choices, as well as rotating specials. Gezehen noted that the entire menu is gluten-free, including the injera bread.

In Eritrea, one of the most popular dishes is Ga’at ($6 small; $8 large), which can be eaten for breakfast and is a common dish served during celebrations. It can be described as firm porridge that’s formed into a volcano-like shape, with a well of spicy butter sauce in the middle and a yogurt mixture poured around the sides.

For several months, Erica Sparks and her three friends have been meeting at Queen Sheba every Monday evening. They like the restaurant’s money-saving BYOB policy, where diners can bring in their own alcohol to enjoy.

Sparks, a retired executive in the medical field, first ate at Queen Sheba about a year ago. While driving along Grant Road, she noticed the restaurant on the north side of the street.

She compared the cuisine to Ethiopian except with more variety. Her current favorite: spaghetti with beef and sauce ($8).

“I love the spaghetti; it doesn’t have a lot of tomato sauce, but it has the meat and the spices that you don’t normally have in regular spaghetti,” she says.

One of the reasons Sparks’ group returns weekly is because of Queen Sheba’s value.

“I like good wine and I’d rather be able to bring my own and enjoy it,” Sparks says. “The four of us will split the bill, and it’s $10 to $15 a person. There are always some leftovers to take home. I tell everybody I can about it.”

She’s also a fan of the hot tea ($1.50), which has cardamom.

“It’s very unique and it’s very good,” she says. “There’s a little bit of natural sweetness to it. It’s very soothing.”

What most impresses Sparks, though is Gezehen.

“He’s a very hard-working man; he does everything he can to please his customers,” says Sparks, who remembered when a homeless man entered the restaurant asking for water and Gezehen ended up also feeding him dinner. “That just melted my heart. That told me more of what kind of a man he is.”