Picture dishes with vivid beet reds, yam oranges, and bright curry yellows. Try to imagine the scents of cumin, turmeric, ginger and onion causing the mouth to water and the palate yearn. Hold on to these thoughts and then imagine no more. The welcoming culture and exotic food of the largest continent await at E’Njoni, a North African and Mediterranean restaurant located in north Portland.
Opened eight years ago, E’Njoni is owned and operated by Sonya Damtew, who moved to Oregon from Ethiopia in 1983 to attend Oregon State University. Opening a restaurant wasn’t on Damtew’s radar when she first arrived, however. While majoring in psychology and public health, she first got heavily involved in working with the immigrant community in Oregon.
“At Oregon State I worked in a department where we gave opportunities to kids who might not otherwise be able to go to school and enjoy the American dream,” she explains. “We worked with removing those obstacles. At the same time I came here very young and I wanted to rediscover where I came from and balance it with who I am here. So I worked with refugees and the immigrant community for a good twenty years of my life.”
The restaurant would end up evolving out of an initial idea to create a space within the community for people to come together. “We built the restaurant with the idea that it would be a cultural exchange spot,” Damtew says. “I’m also an educator, so I’m constantly trying to teach culture and bring Americans closer to immigrants; to bring all people closer, really. So we put conversation pieces on the wall and we’d do events here, poetry and music, just to bring the community together.”
Though the community has markedly changed since she opened E’Njoni eight years ago, Damtew feels no less welcome or grateful for the connections she’s made in north Portland. “A lot of younger people moved into this neighborhood, but they’ve really embraced this idea of cultural exchange and have been very supportive,” she says.
The culturally-wise Portland diaspora provides a welcome environment for businesses like E’Njoni. For Damtew, returning that welcome would end up being built right into the name of the restaurant.
“We adopted a kid from Burundi who spoke Swahili and he had proposed to a girl,” she begins. “After the family accepted his proposal, everybody was shouting this word that sounded like ‘Enjoni! Enjoni!’ and I thought that sounded sweet. I was told it meant welcome in Swahili, the kind of welcome where people are coming together in marriage or lasting friendship. We did change the spelling and add the ‘e’ so that people could pronounce the word, but the meaning remains: all are welcome.”
Perhaps the best way to welcome Portland foodies is through a warm environment that provides delicious meals at a reasonable price. Much like many other Portland establishments, Damtew does her best to source ingredients from within the community in which she lives without putting a hole in your wallet.
“Our prices are really good and it’s all about quality and health,” she says. “Since I work in public health, I want to put food on the table that’s nourishing, wonderful to look at, and amazingly tasteful. Many of our products come from farmers around here.”
For many years Damtew was involved with a project that encouraged refugees to grow their food within the community. That effort would end up taking off and now there are community gardens all over town that she does her best to support.
The community gardens aren’t the only place to find delicious and fresh ingredients. When the time of year is right, expect what’s on the plate to come right from the family garden. It doesn’t get much more organic than that.
“I do my own herbs in the backyard here, except during the winter,” she reports. “I also have a garden at my house that has all the herb, spices and vegetables. It keeps me active and I do use the products here. Portland is wonderful because when things aren’t in season, we have such good access to fresh, organic products.”
For many ingredients, such as the Berbere, a red pepper powder mixed with 7 herbs, or the Mitmita, a mix of Ethiopian chili peppers, cardamom and other herbs, Damtew goes straight to the source. Her grandmother in Ethiopia runs a small operation to package the herbs together and send them over to be used in the restaurant. How’s that for family-style authenticity?
“My grandmother started it,” she says with a smile. “She has younger people doing it for her now, but they do put it together and ship it over here. It’s cheaper for me to do it that way and then I can assure that what goes into the dishes is a very pure, authentic product. Plus my grandma says ‘hey, that’s for my daughter’s restaurant,” she finishes with a laugh.
Fortunately for the greater Portland metropolitan community, Damtew has no plans to go anywhere, though her presence has been requested from the far sides of town. “I have a lot of Indian customers that come in from Hillsboro who work for Intel and Nike, “she says, “and they are always insisting that I open a restaurant out there. If I could find a really good chef that could run it, I would do it in a minute. I would just have to make sure it was classy, brought the culture and flavor, and be very fresh food.”
Expect to find E’Njoni packed on a Sunday afternoon when they offer up a huge buffet with over twenty items. Damtew refers to this as her presentation of different regions. The food is served up piping hot and delicious all day long.
Like so many others before, and many after, Damtew expresses nothing but love for the city that has welcomed her and rejoiced in her cultural expression. “I love Portland because people are open to new ideas and new tastes,” she begins. “A lot of people say they come to visit and they love it and move here. The Portland flavor isn’t just about the food, but about the wonderful tapestry of immigrants from other countries and those from other parts of America that mix so well here. That’s kind of what this is all about.”
The Portland flavor may not be all about the food, but for the part of it that is, E’Njoni is a welcome addition. With delicious meals couched in a welcoming environment, prepare to smile as you salivate while delectable dishes are brought with a side of courtesy and warmth.
E’Njoni is located at 910 N. Killingsworth Street in north Portland. To view their full menu, check out their website. For more information they can be reached at (503)286-1401.
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is a published author and journalist who has been writing professionally for over nine years. He currently works from his home in Vancouver, Washington and is excited to bring you the best that the Portland restaurant scene has to offer.