To hear Maya Hetman tell the story, you would have thought God was driving her car the day she found the vacant restaurant that seemed to have her name written all over it.
“I was right there on Colorado Avenue, when I saw the ‘For Rent’ sign in the window of this restaurant,” she said, pointing to the street. “The next thing I knew, I was parked in front of this place and calling the number on the sign. I told the man, Howard, that I wanted to set an appointment to meet with him. He asked where I was, and I told him ‘in front of the restaurant.’ He said he would be there in 10 minutes.”
They made an agreement, and within a month Hetman — along with her husband and their two teenage children — opened Uchenna, Colorado Springs’ first Ethiopian restaurant.
Uchenna means “God’s will,” Hetman said. It was certainly meant to be. As she says, “I have been happily surprised by the overwhelming acceptance of my food.”
But what inspired Hetman, who moved to Colorado Springs in 2008, to open a restaurant — a completely new experience for her? She had been living in California when a friend in Colorado Springs invited her for a visit. Like so many before her, she loved our city.
“My friend urged me to move here,” she said. “I talked to my husband and children, and we all decided to give life here a try.”
The thought of opening a restaurant had not been in the picture.
“In our country, when people come to your home, the mothers and grandmothers cook them food,” she said. “And we all eat together. It’s social. When I moved here and friends would come to our home, I cooked for them. They would tell me I need to open a restaurant so they can pay me. So when I saw this place, I thought, why not?”
She and her family spent the first four weeks completely cleaning the eatery. Then they were ready to open for business.
“I love the restaurant,” she said, beaming. “I’m so blessed to receive so much love and hugs. People come back again and again, sometimes two to three times a week.”
Steven Raichlen, an internationally famous cookbook author, was at The Broadmoor hotel teaching his BBQ University classes in June when he spotted Hetman’s little restaurant. He became an instant fan. He e-mailed me to see if I knew about it and added his glowing recommendations.
“Her halvah is simply the best I have tasted on three continents,” he wrote. “Her special tea brought us back to the restaurant two days in a row. Her colorful presentations and bold flavors make you wonder why we don’t eat Ethiopian food more often. Yes, you may wait a little longer than you expect for dinner, but every dish is prepared to order and seasoned with Maya’s love.”
As Raichlen warns, eating at Uchenna is not an occasion for rushing. Hetman cooks everything from scratch once the order is placed. But, as he attests, it’s worth the wait.
“I come pretty much every day since I found the restaurant,” said Jeanne Fox, a devoted fan of Hetman’s food. “The flavors are incredible. Maya’s background is more European, where a meal there is more social. Yes, it takes awhile for the food to hit the table, but it’s so healthy and good I don’t mind. Plus it’s like being a kid again — you get to eat with your fingers.”
Ethiopian cuisine is very exotic and has a delicious array of uniquely spiced dishes. It’s based on spicy vegetables combined with lentils, with small amounts of meat, usually lamb. Wat on the menu signals a stew made with large quantities of chopped onion seasoned with berbere, a mixture of powdered chili pepper and other spices. Doro Wat is a chicken stew that is served with hard-cooked eggs on top. If you order tibs, you’ll get grilled meat.
It’s true that you do eat Ethiopian with your fingers, but you get the help of a crepelike bread called injera. Hetman makes the injera using a thin batter of fermented teff flour, so it’s gluten-free. A large silver tray is lined with one huge injera, and the colorful entrees are served on top of the crepe. You eat the food by picking it up with small pieces of the injera.
An Ethiopian meal is an experience, especially with Hetman at the helm. It’s more than her authentic family recipes and her cozy eatery. You’ll even get a hug from this lovely lady who will treat you as though you’ were coming to her home for dinner.
Where: 2501 W. Colorado Ave. in Old Colorado City
Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
Contact: 634-5070 or uchennalive.com