Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

If you agree that immigrants enrich our community, you can guess that the way to Arlingtonians’ hearts is through our stomachs.


I tasted this phenomenon last month when I sampled an Ethiopian-style spinach sambusa, marble cake and a latte at the Dama Pastry Restaurant and Café.


That ethnic cuisine success story at 1505 Columbia Pike near the Air Force Memorial does more than its share to localize the traditionally gentle culture of that East African nation.


I’ve long been partial to Ethiopian fare, with its spongy injera bread you handle sensually in lieu of a fork to devour spicy meat and vegetable stews by hand. The influx of Ethiopians to our area in recent decades is manifest in the refugee settlement agency just off the Pike called the Ethiopian Community Development Council.


And my own experience, as a frequent user of taxi cabs before my retirement as a reporter downtown, is that a huge percentage of those hard-working drivers hail from Addis Ababa or surroundings.


Columbia Pike, one of our county’s oldest thoroughfares and now Arlington’s diversity corridor, hosts several Ethiopian eateries, among them Ethio Café and Greens N Teff in Columbia Heights, and, just over the Falls Church line, Meaza Restaurant.


At Dama’s café on this crowded Monday lunch hour, I basked in the African music on stereo amid two dozen patrons—their mutual familiarity suggests they are regulars.


On the walls are original paintings of the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, President Obama and, as another sign of Americanization, a departed friend’s Pittsburgh Steelers jacket. A community bulletin board advertises distance learning opportunities and health services. In the next room is a counter selling books, CDs, spices and injera bread in plastic bags.


In the quieter restaurant room (open at night), I chatted with Hailu Dama, the manager who came to the United States in 1981. He runs the business with his sister, the baker Almaz Dama, who came over in 1974.


What in 1998 started as a restaurant expanded in 2000 to include a coffee shop, named for their “kind soul” father, who died in 1967. In 20 years, they’ve expanded the main business to catering, Hailu explains, for graduations, baptisms and memorial services. While the clients are chiefly Ethiopians, they serve many American corporations, including the high-rise Sheraton Hotel next door. Dama provides jobs for 10-15 full-time staff, plus part-timers for catering.


The menu is a lesson in cross-cultural awareness. You can experiment with firfir (a breakfast dish like Huevos Rancheros), or kitifo (chopped beef tartar) or Doro Wot chicken stew. But you can also get good ol’ egg sandwiches, fries, split peas and seafood.


With the fancy coffees come pies and cakes, in white and dark chocolate, plus cream puffs, Italian Rum, and raspberry lemon pastries.


Hailu, who lives in Annandale (Arlington, he notes, has become very expensive), expresses concern when I ask about the tragic ethnic violence over the past two years in the Ethiopia’s Tigray region. “The United States should do more,” replies Hailu, who does visit the homeland.


As for Covid, Hailu reports that his eatery shut down for the first two months in 2020, then opened partially when the county allowed them to fill 10 seats. “The help we got from the county was unbelievable,” he added. “I’m so glad I work in Arlington County.”


As our ever-more-expensive-to-live-in county eyes zoning for more “accessory dwelling units,” one friend’s family legacy is worth noting.


Diane Doughty Pollack, who grew up in the 1950s-60s in three different Arlington houses, tells me her father built not one but three playhouses-cum-sheds in all three backyards. One at 3400 N. Edison St., another on 2704 N. Lexington St. and a third on 369 N. Granada St.


Her father’s DIY construction was clearly done with loving care: Six decades later they all are still standing.