Atlanta Orders In: Despite pandemic, Ethiopian couple opens new Stone Mountain restaurant

A takeout feast from Tigi’s Cafe & Food Truck in Stone Mountain: cabbage salad; teff injera; sambusas; beef tibs with collards and yellow split chickpeas; and a vegan sampler with tofu, split lentils in berbere sauce and brown lentils. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK
A takeout feast from Tigi’s Cafe & Food Truck in Stone Mountain: cabbage salad; teff injera; sambusas; beef tibs with collards and yellow split chickpeas; and a vegan sampler with tofu, split lentils in berbere sauce and brown lentils. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

On his third day in the United States, Bellete Tessema visited the World Trade Center at the tip of Manhattan. It was 1990, and Tessema, a newcomer from Ethiopia, peered up at the magnificent Twin Towers and thought, “The sky is the limit.”

In the three decades since, he’s suffered loss, disappointment, triumph. He’s fallen in love and married, changed career paths, earned a degree from George Washington University, and, most recently, opened a restaurant in the middle of a pandemic. And, yet, he hasn’t lost his sunny outlook.

Tucked inside a sprawling industrial park in Stone Mountain, Tigi’s Cafe & Food Truck debuted in May. A textbook mom-and-pop, named for Tessema’s wife, Tigist Emeru (Tigi for short), the takeout-only, counter-service restaurant is a genuine family affair.

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This takeout order from Tigi’s Cafe & Food Truck in Stone Mountain includes a salad of cabbage, tomatoes, onions and peppers; and a pair of crispy sambusas (one vegan, one chicken). CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK
This takeout order from Tigi’s Cafe & Food Truck in Stone Mountain includes a salad of cabbage, tomatoes, onions and peppers; and a pair of crispy sambusas (one vegan, one chicken). CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

While the food truck remains on hiatus thanks to COVID-19, the spotless, brightly lit space doubles as a schoolroom for the couple’s two children (who are enrolled in the Gwinnett County school system and take online courses) — and as a kitchen. While the kids study, Tessema and Emeru simmer aromatic Ethiopian stews, fry crispy sambusas, and make teff injera from scratch.

As a young man, Tessema wanted to earn dual degrees in law and medicine. He grew up hearing about medical atrocities in Ethiopia; his plan was to become a lawyer who could double as a medical expert.

While he was enrolled in Columbia University’s pre-med program, his father was shot down on the streets of Addis Ababa. To help support his mother and seven siblings, he dropped out of school, and worked as an occupational therapist.

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The pandemic has not been kind to the mobile component of Tigi’s Cafe & Food Truck, a new Ethiopian restaurant in Stone Mountain. For now, the truck remains parked outside the business. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK
The pandemic has not been kind to the mobile component of Tigi’s Cafe & Food Truck, a new Ethiopian restaurant in Stone Mountain. For now, the truck remains parked outside the business. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

On a trip home in 2006, Tessema met Emeru. They eventually settled in the Washington, D.C., area, where Tessema earned his degree from George Washington. In 2010, they opened their first Tigi’s, in Ellicott City, Maryland. In 2018, they sold the business to friends and moved South in search of new opportunities.

“We got our food license in April of this year, at exactly the wrong time, when COVID hit big time,” Tessema said of Tigi’s. (The entrepreneurial immigrant has a side gig as a real estate agent, and the couple also operates a teff importing company.)

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Tigi’s Cafe & Food Truck has been open since May in Stone Mountain. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK
Tigi’s Cafe & Food Truck has been open since May in Stone Mountain. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

For now, they hope to build a sustainable business via takeout and delivery. When it’s safe, they’ll add a 30-seat restaurant. For health-conscious eaters, it’s worth noting that Tigi’s vegetable dishes are 100 percent vegan; the injera is 100 percent gluten-free.

Bellete Tessema and Tigist Emeru are the husband-and-wife team behind Tigi’s Cafe & Food Truck in Stone Mountain. CONTRIBUTED BY TIGI'S CAFE & FOOD TRUCK
Bellete Tessema and Tigist Emeru are the husband-and-wife team behind Tigi’s Cafe & Food Truck in Stone Mountain. CONTRIBUTED BY TIGI'S CAFE & FOOD TRUCK

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

Tessema described his life as one of overcoming adversity. When the Twin Towers tumbled in 2001, he said, he cried all day. “My whole dream collapsed.”

In the end, however, he got up and kept going.

Is there a restaurant you want to see featured? Send your suggestions to ligaya.figueras@ajc.com.

TIGI’S CAFE & FOOD TRUCK

Menu: classic Ethiopian

Alcohol: no

What I ordered: beef tibs with sides of collards and yellow split peas; a vegan combo with cabbage, split lentils in berbere sauce, whole brown lentils and scrambled tofu with turmeric; a salad-sambusa combo with one vegan and one chicken sambusa and tikil gomen salad (cabbage, tomato, onions and peppers). The food was stellar. The sambusas, crispy and fried to order, were the best I’ve had. As a big fan of Ethiopian vegan, I found Tigi’s cabbage, collards and, especially, the red lentils terrific. I loved scooping up my repast with tangy, wet, impeccably fresh injera. Tigi’s is a find, and worth driving for.

Service options: order by phone or in person; delivery via DoorDash, Uber Eats and Grubhub

Safety protocols: follows standard CDC recommendations

Address, phone: 1979 Parker Court, Stone Mountain; 678-580-2760

Hours: 10:30 a.m-10:30 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays.; 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Sundays

Website: tigisethiopian.com

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