The Biz Beat: San Jose locals discover Ethiopian home cooking at Mudai
Zegay Siyoum (right) said he comes to Mudai as much for the company as the food. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

Editor’s Note: The Biz Beat is a new monthly series highlighting local small businesses and restaurants in Silicon Valley.

Mudai Ethiopian Restaurant owner and chef Selam Tkabo has a passion for cooking and strives to “serve happiness” through traditional, homemade dishes. She recreates flavorful family recipes, rich in exotic African spices, she learned to make in her mother’s kitchen in Ethiopia.

Located at 503 W. San Carlos Street in San Jose, the restaurant seats 70 people at its 19 tables. It’s second room, which features a mural of the Blue Nile Falls, is also used for birthday parties. Most entrees cost about $15 and include favorites like Doro Wat, Lamb Wot, Kitfo and Lamb Alicha Wot served with Ingera flatbread.

Mudai owner and chef Selam Tkabo has a passion for cooking. She recreates family recipes rich in exotic African spices. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

Along with generous servings of customer service, Tkabo and manager Hagos Tekle embrace the importance of community. The restaurant sponsors soccer tournaments and Ethiopian and Eritrea New Year festivals. They also bring their food truck to events, selling at reduced prices.

Tekle said giving back is essential.

“We like to help kids, especially those who can’t afford uniforms or traveling with the team,” he told San José Spotlight. “They’re our next customers and a stronger community helps us survive.”

Tkabo worked for a couple of years with Mudai’s original owner, Addis Aelmu, before taking over the business when he retired in 2014.

Before COVID-19 struck, Mudai used to be packed. Then the pandemic hit and with it came the anxiety of not knowing what tomorrow would bring, Tkabo said. She had to pivot to survive. Her indoor dining experience, with large photographs and aromatic spices that transport diners to Ethiopia and Eritrea, was put on hold.

To help make ends meet she turned to Grubhub, DoorDash and Uber Eats to increase sales. The delivery services hurt, taking up to a 30% cut, plus the cost of advertising.

“You can’t live with them or without them,” Tekle said.

The pandemic brought many sleepless nights with so much uncertainty, he said.

The restaurant did receive a boost after GrubHub and DoorDash featured them as a Black-owned restaurant following Black Lives Matter protests. But patronage has since declined by 40% post-pandemic.

Inventory is another challenge. The meat dishes are expensive and hard to come by.

“Sometimes it seems like you’re not making enough money to support yourselves,” Tekle said.

But their loyal customers keep them going, both emotionally and financially. One customer warmly shook Tekle’s hand before taking a seat.

“He’s my friend,” he said. “I come here to eat.”

Pictures of Ethiopia and Eritrea decorate Mudai, transporting customers to the region. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

Zegay Siyoum, a native of Ethiopia, comes as much for the company as the food. On Tuesday, he came straight from work instead of going home to his family because he loves the place so much.

“I come by all the time just to talk and laugh with them,” he said.

Siyoum said he likes the way Tkabo makes everything on the menu and wouldn’t eat anywhere else. The restaurant draws others from their native homelands of Ethiopia and Eritrea.

“We love our country’s food,” he said. “That’s why I’m here.” 

Tom Ribeiro, who has been coming to Mudai for three or four years, said it’s his family’s favorite restaurant with “really good” food and service. He said entrees are served quickly considering the variety and type of cuisine offered. The lamb tibs, tender chopped lean lamb meat cooked in a spicy cayenne or turmeric garlic and ginger sauce, is his favorite.

“It’s a good experience for a good price,” Ribeiro said.

When he comes to the area on business, Eshete Getnet always comes to Mudai. He likes the meat combos featuring Doro Wat, Lamb Wot, Kitfo and Lamb Alicha Wot and veggie combos featuring Miser, Ater Kik, Gomen and Alicha Atkilt best. Both are served with flatbread.

“The people are very friendly, and the food is very tasty,” he said, adding it’s important for the community to have an affordable mom and pop restaurant nearby.

Customer Tom Ribeiro said Mudai offers a good experience for a good price. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

Tekle is encouraged that Ethiopian food is becoming more mainstream. He said Mudai is known for its vegan and vegetarian dishes as much as its lamb.

“We’re doing something people like,” Tekle said. “It gives us energy to get up in the morning.”

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

Mudai Ethiopian Restaurant

Location: 503 W. San Carlos Street in San Jose

Website: www.mudaiethiopiansanjose.com

Social Media: www.facebook.com/mudaiethiopian

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