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Atlanta Orders In: Kategna Ethiopian debuts on Buford Highway

The colorful Veggie Platter from Kategna includes a variety of legume and vegetable preparations, along with injera for scooping. LIGAYA FIGUERAS/LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM
The colorful Veggie Platter from Kategna includes a variety of legume and vegetable preparations, along with injera for scooping. LIGAYA FIGUERAS/LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

In these unprecedented times, I seem to utter words like “crazy” and “unbelievable” with the same frequency that I scrub my hands. Today, I’ll apply these two descriptors to Kategna Ethiopian Cuisine. The place has me in awe.

First-time restaurant owner Nani Desta (no relationship with Desta Ethiopian Kitchen) recently made the gutsy move to debut Kategna in the middle of a pandemic. The food she is preparing is crazy good.

Kategna Ethiopian Cuisine is located at 2857 Buford Highway in Brookhaven. LIGAYA FIGUERAS/LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM
Kategna Ethiopian Cuisine is located at 2857 Buford Highway in Brookhaven. LIGAYA FIGUERAS/LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Kategna is located on Buford Highway, just south of North Druid Hills. Desta had planned an April launch, but the coronavirus stalled things.

“I was scared. I didn’t know what to do,” Desta said.

As she waited to see what the pandemic would bring, she continued to dole out money to her landlord and to the staff she’d lined up. “I was paying the rent – and employee expense because I wasn’t going to tell them, ‘You’re not going to open with me,’” she said.

Nani Desta is the owner of Kategna Ethiopian Cuisine. LIGAYA FIGUERAS/LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM
Nani Desta is the owner of Kategna Ethiopian Cuisine. LIGAYA FIGUERAS/LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

By June 1, and with no end to the public health and economic crisis in sight, Desta decided she couldn’t wait any longer. Atlantans clamoring for something new in the local dining scene shouldn’t wait any longer either to order flaky triangles of deep-fried sambusa stuffed with beef, slow-cooked tibs firfir or wot (stew) every which way.

Although the menu is a condensed version of what Desta hopes to offer when the virus subsides, the current selection of Ethiopian appetizers and entrees is enough to provide patrons not just a taste of Ethiopian cuisine, but of Desta’s way of cooking.

The Katenga Special includes tibs firfir, kitfo, plenty of ayib (house-made cottage cheese), a boiled egg and injera bread. LIGAYA FIGUERAS/LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM
The Katenga Special includes tibs firfir, kitfo, plenty of ayib (house-made cottage cheese), a boiled egg and injera bread. LIGAYA FIGUERAS/LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Recipes primarily hail from her mother, Yeshi Tesfu. “She was a well-known cook in Ethiopia,” said Desta, who emigrated to the U.S. from Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa, in 1997.

At Kategna, an aromatic doro wat – Ethiopia’s beloved chicken stew – is prepared not just with berbere, the country’s go-to spice blend of garlic, red pepper, cardamom, coriander and fenugreek, but also her mother’s special spice mix. “Mine tastes just like home,” Desta said of the doro wat. “I do it just like my mom.” The same secret family formula finds its way into the lamb wot.

Prior to opening Kategna, Desta operated a catering company for a year, using the kitchen at now defunct Kimi’s Bistro in Little Five Points. Before that, she worked at Atlanta Bread Company. Her skills with bread are on full display at Kategna.

The injera at Kategna is fermented two days and is made entirely from teff flour. LIGAYA FIGUERAS/LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM
The injera at Kategna is fermented two days and is made entirely from teff flour. LIGAYA FIGUERAS/LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Injera, that soft, spongy flatbread with sour funk is fundamental to Ethiopian eating. It’s the scooper-upper for wot, tibs, gomen and many other dishes. The injera at Kategna is fermented for two days and is made entirely of teff flour. “Nowadays, most injera is infused with some (other) flour to make it easy to work with,” Desta said. Her version, she said, is not only a sturdy transport for dishes, but also harmonizes with – and accentuates – their spices.

Despite commendable food, Kategna is still just getting by. Including Desta and her two cousins, the staff count is at five. She has trimmed back the hours of operation to manage the slow traffic, 80% of which is takeout. She wishes she could find time away from day-to-day operations to apply for grants and loans or to seek working capital from another source. “I don’t even have time to do that,” she said.

Kategna Ethiopian Cuisine seats 40 patrons. Due to the cornavirus, the restaurant is limiting capacity to 10 persons. LIGAYA FIGUERAS/LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM
Kategna Ethiopian Cuisine seats 40 patrons. Due to the cornavirus, the restaurant is limiting capacity to 10 persons. LIGAYA FIGUERAS/LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Looking ahead, a traditional Ethiopian breakfast is a cultural element she wants to offer to Atlanta diners. Along with Ethiopian coffee. “I have the best coffee. We have all the traditional servingware,” she said. “We can’t do the ceremony because of the short staff. But we are ready when the time is right.”

Despite the setbacks and the waiting – be it waiting to first unlock doors, to introduce breakfast or to serve Ethiopian coffee in style – Desta remains hopeful.

“I’m not as busy as I expected because of the virus. But, I want to keep going. I want to stay positive,” she said. “This was my dream for a long time. I don’t want to mess it up.”

Kategna Ethiopian Cuisine offers sambusas, savory hand-held pastry pockets, filled with beef, chicken or lentils. LIGAYA FIGUERAS/LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM
Kategna Ethiopian Cuisine offers sambusas, savory hand-held pastry pockets, filled with beef, chicken or lentils. LIGAYA FIGUERAS/LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

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

KATEGNA ETHIOPIAN CUISINE

Menu: Abbreviated menu of Ethiopian appetizers and entrees. Bestsellers include Katenga Injera, Salmon Tibs, Vegetarian Platter, Meat Combo

Alcohol: No

What I ordered: Meat Combo, Katenga Special, Vegetarian Platter, Beef and Lentil Sambusas

Service options: Dine-in, takeout, delivery via Uber Eats (DoorDash coming soon)

Safety protocols: Following COVID-19 restaurant safety guidelines; frequent sanitization; all staff wear face masks; bottled water only, other beverages served in disposable cups; Ethiopian coffee service temporarily suspended.

Address, phone: 2857 Buford Highway N.E., Brookhaven, 470-355-9979

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily (Beginning Aug. 3: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays)

Website: kategnaethiopiancuisine.com

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