For Vegetarian Fast-Casual, Hit Greens N Teff
The Ethiopian carryout on the Pike is plant-based and packed with flavor.
I’m struggling to decide what to order at Greens N Teff when owner Beakal Melaku asks if I like spicy food. Nodding the affirmative, I soon find myself tearing off pieces of injera (a flatbread made with the ancient grain teff) and scooping up shimbra asa, a boldly flavored wot (stew) packed with onions, garlic and berbere, a chili-based spice blend and cornerstone of Ethiopian cooking. Though the menu at this Columbia Pike carryout is completely vegetarian, the chickpea flour dumplings cooked into the wot have a meaty texture. “It’s like a version of doro wot but without the chicken or [hard-boiled] egg,” Melaku explains, referring to his homeland’s best-known dish.
Greens N Teff follows a familiar fast-casual formula: You choose a base (basmati rice or injera bread), then pile on proteins and vegetables to your liking, with add-ons such as yeater kik wot (split pea stew), difin misir wot (green lentil stew) and a mushroom tibs that swaps the usual meat for portabellas. Vegetable toppers in the assembly line include gomen (collard greens), fossolia (grilled green beans, carrots and celery mixed with garlic and caramelized onions) and keysir (beets and potatoes). Your best bet? The extra-large plate with three proteins and four vegetables for $13.99.
After immigrating with his family to Alexandria from Addis Ababa in 1996, Melaku graduated from T.C. Williams High School in 1999, earned a bachelor’s degree from Longwood University and worked in IT. He left that field in 2012 to help his parents open a convenience store in D.C. and hoped to pursue his true dream—opening a restaurant—next door, but the deal fell through and his family’s store closed in 2017.
Melaku’s next idea was to open a carryout selling grilled meats and vegetables. To gain commercial kitchen experience, he took a night shift food prep job at the Whole Foods Market in Clarendon, where he couldn’t help noticing a strong local demand for vegetarian food and switched his business plan to a plant-based concept. He says his young daughter’s eating habits (she was born in 2016) also inspired him—she refuses to eat anything with meat.
Melaku found his current location on the Pike on Craigslist and took over the lease from the former tenant, Pho Harmony & Grill, last October. Many of the family recipes at the carryout (there is no seating) are from his mother, Beletshachew Bekure, an excellent cook and, he says, his toughest critic. The berbere and mitmita spice blends are from his wife, Hanna Elias, who makes most of the wots at Greens N Teff.
“We wanted to show our culture through our dishes, passed down from generation to generation, and that you don’t have to get protein from meat,” Melaku says. “We have many repeat customers already. It really is a blessing.”