Two new eateries—one Ethiopian, one Vietnamese—show signs of health for mom-and-pop establishments 

Let's have a show of hands from anyone who has ever daydreamed about opening a restaurant with a spouse or significant other. Now, a show of hands from anyone who 86'ed the dream when they realized it hinged on the spouse or significant other doing all the dirty work. Mom-and-pop restaurants are hard business, and in the current economic environment, conventional wisdom and doom-saying media reports would have you believe that they're going the way of, well, the mom-and-pop anything. But a couple of new couple-owned businesses in Nashville are bucking the trend, hoping to make a go out of hard work and unusual flavors from their faraway homelands.

Far East Nashville
In Nashville, Vietnamese cuisine has long been synonymous with the west side of town—specifically the Charlotte Pike corridor, where a cluster of pho and goi cuon purveyors have lured diners with a promise of fresh egg pancakes, sweet coffee and rice-wrapper rolls stuffed with shrimp, pork, vermicelli, fresh mint and basil. But Hang and Aaron Rosburg have imported the flavors of Hang's homeland to their East Nashville neighborhood. The couple set up shop in the renovated Kendall's Appliance Repair building, at the intersection of 11th and Fatherland. Vibrant orange and green paints, graceful orchids and steaming noodles bring warmth to a spare, chic dining room with concrete floors, exposed ductwork and contemporary lighting and furniture.

What the concise one-page menu lacks in breadth of choice, it compensates in depth of flavor. The single pho offering, made with thinly sliced flank and sirloin, could feed a family for $9. The large white bowl held a steaming bath of rich ginger-and-anise-laced broth and a bountiful tangle of soft rice noodles. A side plate carried the fresh accoutrements of basil, bean sprouts and lime wedges for adding texture and tang to the soup. (For better or worse, Far East lacks the unusual cuts of meat that bob ominously in the soups at many Vietnamese eateries.) The usual condiments were present and accounted for on the table—hoisin, sriracha and soy—but the natural flavor of the broth was so satisfying that we added nothing beyond the fresh ingredients. The arrival of such a soothing soup in the neighborhood could mean cold-and-flu season in East Nashville will never be the same.

Hang and her sister Hien Nguyen manage the kitchen, and our server reminded us that everything was cooked to order, as if to manage our expectations for speed of service. (As the first people seated at lunch, we were served expeditiously, and cool shrimp rolls and peanut dipping sauce arrived quickly upon ordering. Our entrées followed soon thereafter, and our to-go order was ready as soon as we were, but we could see how the wait might lengthen as the dining room filled up, and early reports from the dinner rush suggest the enthusiastic crowds have overwhelmed the tiny staff.)

Lemongrass chicken was a simple stir-fry of cubed breast meat dusted with zesty citrus-scented spice. Cooking browned the aromatic spices and added a faint crispness to the edges of the chicken, and a spare amount of sweet glaze pulled the rice and meat together in a well-balanced play of textures and sweet and tangy flavors.

Chicken curry in a creamy coconut sauce studded with potatoes was a generous serving of yellow-hued stew in a pretty white bowl, served with a side of rice.

To-go orders held up surprisingly well, and the Vietnamese barbecue pork sandwich could become a favorite pickup meal, with slightly tough but sweet strips of pork on a baguette laden with fresh cilantro. (Our roll reheated well in the toaster oven, yielding a crisp crust and soft inside.) But the atmosphere and details such as fresh house-squeezed limeade and sweet coffee thick with milk make for a pleasant dining experience in an unexpected nook of the ever-evolving 37206.

Far East serves lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday. To-go orders are available.

Goha Ethiopian Restaurant
Husband-and-wife team Debere Getahun and Dawit Lema met in Gondar, Ethiopia, before heading to the U.S. The couple stopped first in Egypt, where they were married, then in Atlanta, where they had twins. In 2003, the family came to Nashville, where a third son was born. Getahun and Lema managed Horn of Africa restaurant before launching their own business in June. Between them, they create a welcoming environment, with Lema patroling the dining room and chef Getahun emerging periodically from the kitchen with an aromatic pan of freshly roasted coffee beans for the post-prandial java ritual.

Balanced on the bank of a Southeast Nashville thoroughfare, their twee yellow cottage has the feel of a newlywed's house: freshly renovated, cheerily painted and tidily arranged. With polished blond wood accents, crisp white tablecloths and elegantly heavy water glasses that would be at home in a high-end cocktail bar, the light-filled interior design scheme is more polished than you might expect from an eatery where lunch clocks in below $10.

Goha's concise menu lists a greatest-hits roster of East African cuisine, including awaze tibs, doro wat and kitfo (ground beef, herb butter and spices), with varying levels of peppery heat. On the day we visited, a few items were not available, so the ordering decision virtually made itself. Our entrées arrived in footed bowls (tabas) on a large round tray draped with homemade injera. A ring of vegetarian sides circled the tray in a red-green-and-yellow array recalling the colors of the Ethiopian flag. Debere makes the injera from scratch, mixing water and teff (rice flour) at night, allowing it to rest, and cooking the large swaths of spongy bread every morning.

With the traditional communal serving trays, Goha works especially well for groups who want to share food or explore a range of dishes. More adventurous diners can forgo the standard seating in favor of traditional mesobs (low woven tables). As always, the forkless custom of Ethiopian cuisine engenders a sense of comfortable casualness as everyone digs in with their fingers.

Doro wat (slow-cooked chicken leg with hard-boiled egg) arrived with a single drumstick in a piquant sauce of sweet pureed onions and the pungent Ethiopian spice blend called berbere. The tender meat pulled easily from the bone, and made flavorful filling to tuck inside a swatch of injera. A pinch of homemade cottage-cheese curds added a cool counterpoint to the chicken's warmth and heat.

Among the cubed-meat dishes—available with choice of beef or lamb—awaze tibs was the spiciest available on our visit. The tender hunks of lamb were sautéed with diced tomato and pink onion and infused with the dry heat of berbere. In contrast to the saucy onion-and-chicken dish, awaze tibs recalled the texture of a grilled steak taco.

The colorful array of lentils, split peas, cabbage, cottage cheese, and minced collard greens complemented the flavors and textures to the spice-infused meats, and as we discovered and devoured our favorite items on the tray—red lentils and collard greens—Lema stepped in to replenish them without our even asking.

Coffee beans roasting in the back wooed us to linger in the serene room, sipping dark roast from tiny demitasse cups. A couple of well-behaved toddlers playing in the dining room—enjoying what appeared to be their first foray into Ethiopian food—reminded us of a happy home.

For now, Goha serves lunch and dinner daily.

Email cfox@nashvillescene.com, or call 615-844-9408.

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