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Queen of Sheba restaurant is a piece of Ethiopia in Jacksonville

When Anteneh Gelaye emigrated from Ethiopia to the United States in 1992, he was hungry.

Not for food. The famine that ravaged his African country had ended seven years earlier. What hadn't ended, though, was a civil war that continued to wreak violence and mayhem there.

What Gelaye was hungry for was stability and opportunity.

After leaving Ethiopia in 1989, Gelaye went to the neighboring country of Kenya. Three years later, at age 24, he landed in St. Louis. He came to Jacksonville in 1994 after learning how to drive an 18-wheeler and run a convenience store.

Now Gelaye is hungry again. Except this time, he's hungry to share his Ethiopian cuisine and culture with the rest of the city by way of his restaurant Queen of Sheba, and he hopes people here will be hungry enough to try it out.

"I was young when I left the country [Ethiopia] you know, and my family used to own a business, a restaurant," he said. "I would like to show our food and our culture here. ... Here I saw a lot of Chinese restaurants, Indian restaurants and other restaurants ... and I see I am from Ethiopia and there are no [Ethiopian] restaurants."

When Gelaye talks of using his restaurant just west of Florida 9A on Atlantic Boulevard as a conduit for enlightening people about Ethiopian culture, he intends to stimulate more senses than just taste.

The tables and walls are shrouded in red, black, green and yellow - colors of the Ethiopian flag. Footage of dancers and singers celebrating Ethiopia day in Los Angeles plays continuously on a giant flat-screen television perched above a display of baskets, jugs and cups neatly arranged for what is known as a "coffee ceremony." A coffee ceremony is how Ethiopians give a formal end to the fellowship shared during a meal. That fellowship is shared not through using utensils, but through eating off one platter, using a soft flatbread known as injera to pick up lamb, beef and various spicy mixtures of beans and vegetables.

"Once you eat from one plate, you're never apart," Gelaye said. "The common thing is that when you eat with your hand, everything that is spiritual goes into your body. We don't use a spoon and a fork. ... Husband and wife, they feed each other."

Gelaye's journey from refugee to restaurateur has been an interesting one.

When he came to the United States, he said, he wasn't worried about not being successful.

"I just came at a young age, and when you come at a young age, you don't think about that. You just move," said Gelaye, now 41. "When we [Ethiopians] got here, we came to change our lives. That's why we work hard."

After going to trucking school, Gelaye said he decided to move to Jacksonville from St. Louis because the weather was warmer.

"When I first moved to Jacksonville, I was driving an 18-wheeler," Gelaye said with a laugh. "The weather environment reminds me of Ethiopia. Sunny and beautiful."

He also tried his hand at school. Gelaye said he enrolled at Florida Community College at Jacksonville - now Florida State College at Jacksonville - with plans to work toward a degree in communications engineering. But, he said, his money situation wouldn't allow him to continue.

Besides driving the truck, Gelaye said he also worked in a convenience store. He still does those jobs today, but he also owns the store.

"We work hard. ... We work long hours for ourselves," he said. "That's why they [Ethiopians] change from being employed by someone to being employed for themselves."

Over the years, Gelaye brought most of his family to the United States. Today, he has a wife, two daughters and a son - all of whom help him in the restaurant.

"In America you can be whatever you want to be. You can do whatever you want to do," Gelaye said. "As long as you work, you can be anybody."

Yet even with all the opportunity, something was still missing for Gelaye.

For one, he said, he'd like to see more connectedness among Ethiopians in Jacksonville. That might be tough, however, considering that when most Ethiopians come to the United States, they tend to settle in places such as Washington, D.C., and Seattle, which have large Ethiopian communities.

Last year, in fact, Lutheran Social Services - an organization that coordinates refugee placements in Jacksonville - resettled just four Ethiopians here, and had only 15 Ethiopians in all its programs, said Barbara Carr, director of refugee and immigrant services,

"There is a limited number of Ethiopians here, so the sense of community might not be as strong," she said.

While Gelaye said there are no formal organizations for Ethiopians here except for the churches, he also said he believes constant work forces them to keep a low profile. He also said that when those Ethiopians do catch a breather, he wants them to do it at Queen of Sheba.

"We work so hard until we don't have time to get together," Gelaye said. "But when we do, this place will be the connection for the Ethiopians."

But most of all, Gelaye said, he wants to introduce all customers to Ethiopian culture. Despite its troubles, Ethiopia still boasts a rich and unique history.

"Most people from Jacksonville, they don't know about Ethiopian food. They don't know about Ethiopia," Gelaye said. "We have our own language, our own writing ... a long history of religion, of [Emperor] Haile Selassie and the Queen of Sheba. ... We believe Queen of Sheba is from Ethiopia. We have our own unique food, and it came from generation to generation.

"I feel really happy to express our culture."

So does Gelaye's 16-year-old son, Robel, who was recently helping him out in the restaurant.

"I think it's [the restaurant] a good way to show culture and different diversities in the U.S., because you don't see that a lot," Robel said. "This is different, and we're introducing people to it.

"I think it's a pretty good place."

To contact Queen of Sheba restaurant, call (904) 721-1001.

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Eating Healthy with Great Restaurants in Jacksonville, Fl

Three Amazing Restuarants in Jacksonville, Fl. That Serve Delicious and Healthy Meals for Your Family

While the past century of American dining has seen a push for ever-expanding waistlines, the past decade has seen an emergence of restaurants focusing on the healthier side of human diet. Yet, it is difficult to find family-friendly restaurants that do not rely on chemical and corn fed livestock, nutrition-reduced vegetables, and smaller portions to back up the "healthy" claim they have printed on the menu. In Jacksonville, Fl. however, we do have delicious alternatives throughout the city.

Queen of Sheba, Jacksonville, Fl.

Check your silverware at the door. As an authentic Ethiopian restaurant, you're in for a treat.

In Ethiopia, they don't practice finger foods, they practice finger meals. Which is why "unbelievable uniqueness," ought to be the moniker of this amazing kitchen. Creating exotic tastes from a variety of spices allows the healthy consumer to delight in receiving a filling meal that uses meats such as lamb as a tasteful addition but not the centerpiece of the dish. Vegetarian entrées are a staple of the Ethiopian diet. As such, the Queen of Sheba offers a variety of inexpensive vegan-friendly food, including the prized Yekik Alicha and Misir Wot.