It’s a morning like any other at Waliya Kitchen & Cafe in Richardson. The smells of spiced, peppery meats and zesty injera pancakes fill the air. Cars pulled in and out of different filling stations, quickly pumping petrol into their vehicles. Waliya isn’t the average Ethiopian restaurant. It shares its space with a gas station off Spring Valley Road. And it’s developing a reputation for serving some of the best African food in town.
The exterior of the establishment is unassuming. Blink as you drive by and you might miss it. The light from its LED sign is small but colorful. Inside, the natural light from the windows and doors hits the dining room casting a warm, welcoming glow. Co-owner Fenta Dagnew greets her first customer of the day, and thanks him for his review. They discuss store hours and the recent holiday. Already there’s a rapport that makes it seem like she knows everyone who stops by personally.
Diversity is key when it comes to the success of Waliya. This particular area of the city hosts a cross-section of different cultures and ethnicities. Within a few blocks of each other you’ll see Newgopal Vegetarian Restaurant, a popular Indian spot; Afrah Mediterranean, a Lebanese food and pastry option; and the Saigon Block restaurant and Cali Saigon Mall food court, two businesses focused specifically on Vietnamese cuisine. Dagnew says her customers are from all over. “They’re from here, America, India, Pakistan, and Jordan.” Dagnew points to Hani Mohamad, a regular who Dagnew says comes in on Sundays for tibs and kitfo. “He brings his wife and she have this coffee ceremony,” Dagnew says.
Waliya roasts and grinds its own Ethiopian coffee. It’s an easily purchased coffee, but the secret to the flavor diners get from its roast comes from the precise measurements. Some may find cream and sugar unnecessary because Waliya’s black coffee is surprisingly sweet.
Breakfast begins with dulet, a combination of beef, liver, kidney, and tripe mixed with different spices. The way the flavors combine makes it taste similar to migas, but instead of a tortilla Ethiopians use injera (a light, spongy bread) as the vessel. Though the smells of cooking meats draw diners in, Waliya’s most popular dishes are its vegan and vegetarian options. “Veggie combo, a lot of people take it. Around here, it is vegan people,” Dagnew says.
Waliya opened in August, and so far it’s built a word-of-mouth following within the community as the spot for a homemade bite. It just so happens to be inside a gas station — which is 100 percent intentional.
“A lot of people come in and out. It’s different kind[s] of people: white, Black, Pakistani, Indian, Arabic, Asian, Vietnamese — any kind of people, they come in and out. Maybe they love my food,” Dagnew says. “That’s why I started to open here. Of course, they will love it.”
Dagnew came to the U.S. from Ethiopia for a better life. It’s long been her dream to get into the food industry. “I decided 15 years [ago] to open a restaurant, but this is not really a restaurant. This is [a] kitchen cafe,” she says. She has worked in gas stations before and her familiarity with how they work drove her decision to open Waliya inside one. She began her search for the right convenience store in 2002, but couldn’t find one that aligned with her income at the time. The journey was difficult. On more than one occasion she found an affordable place, only to have others swoop in and close the deal before her. So she waited for her three kids to grow up and graduate with degrees before getting back on the hunt for her corner shop. That’s when she found the Tiger Mart, which had kitchen space, and welcomed her business with open arms. Now all that was left was producing quality, tasty food.
Delicious does not even begin to describe the incredible dishes prepared each day at Waliya. Take for example the kitfo. This lean ground beef is seasoned with Dagnew’s homemade spiced butter. It’s presented with ayib, a soft feta-like cheese, and finely chopped greens to mix in on the side.
Everything is made from fresh produce gathered locally. Even the juice is from fresh fruits. The smoothies are layered and swirled with fruit flavors, a concoction Dagnew takes pride in creating. Ask for any combination of flavors such as mango, papaya, banana, strawberry, avocado, anise, and pineapple to get a smoothie that fits your specific tastes. Seasonal fruits like watermelon are offered too, depending on the time of year, and veggie kicks like spinach can be added as well.
Dagnew says the best and most-ordered item on the menu is the shiro, steamed and stewed spiced chickpeas that come with a side of vegetables atop a large circular piece of injera.
For carnivores, the tibs is also worth an order. Choose between juicy, dry-seasoned derek tibs, or slow-simmered and saucy awaze tibs for tasty bite-sized chunks of beef or lamb sauteed with onions, jalapenos, and tomatoes seasoned with rosemary. For poultry lovers, the doro wat is a must. Chicken is simmered in berbere sauce, which includes flavors like onion, garlic, and chili pepper in Waliya’s homemade spiced butter.
Dagnew says if the opportunity arises, she definitely will expand Waylia. “If I got money, of course I [would]. Why not? I used to work 7-Eleven, I used to work gas stations. I know how to do, I know how to handle it, but no money.”
Mohamed chimes in, “No money, no honey.”
For now, Waliya will focus on cooking homestyle meals that reflect the love and hospitality Ethiopian culture exudes. Dagnew appreciates the town she’s in and hopes the people here will enjoy her food. “I like this area. It’s cool, nice people. The neighborhood, everyone.”
Waliya Kitchen and Cafe is located at 236 E Spring Valley Rd. in Richardson. It is open Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. and from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sundays.