Ethiopian brews, family & community at Tucson's Z-Street

On the corner of Broadway and North Treat Avenue, Zemam’s Ethiopian Cuisine and Zerai’s International Bar make up Tucson’s growing Z-Street International Marketplace.

“If you crave Ethiopian food, there aren’t very many substitutes. And so if you crave it, you got to eat it, which has kind of been good fortune for us,” said manager Lucas Gebremariam, son of the owner who started Zemam’s more than 30 years ago.

Gebremariam’s father, Amanuel Gebremariam, opened the original Zemam’s in a house in 1993 on 2731 E. Broadway. Gebremariam has memories of growing up in the restaurant with his family, recalling pitching in to help out.

“Every time if I had somebody spend the night at my house, that Saturday morning, they would have to come to the restaurant and chop onions or peel potatoes,” Gebremariam said. “You know, when family needs you, you got to be there. A lot of times, I don’t think my dad even needed out help. He was just so busy that he just wanted to spend time with us.”

“I was in third grade and, you know, seeing it go from a five table restaurant to being able to accommodate almost 150 to 200 people is a crazy thing,” Gebremariam said. “It’s cool how Tucson has embraced us as a family and as a restaurant. When we opened in ’93, there was nothing close to any kind of African food. It was always Chinese food, Mexican food, Thai food. But Tucson really embraced us and was very excited and curious about trying this food, which I think, in a lot of other cities, we would have probably been closed in a year.”

Zerai’s opened last month, and Gebremarian said the bar is his passion project. Zerai’s serves beverages such as cocktails with a locally made Ethiopian honey wine and Ethiopian beers as well as handheld bites such as hand pies and Ethiopian tacos, which Gebremariam described as a handmade taco tortilla with injera bread inside and the filling of the person’s choice combined to create a textural and flavorful experience. 

The area behind the bar is being worked on with the goal of eventually hosting local up-and-coming food vendors and aspiring restaurateurs.

“When the back part is developed, we’re going to have little stalls, little places for different types of food trucks or food vendors,” Gebremariam said. “Our hope is that we give people who want to start restaurants and maybe can’t afford a brick and mortar an opportunity to showcase their food for a reasonable price and get to an audience that we know from our experience is excited to try different things.”

There are plans to add an Ethiopian coffee house called Zidamo by the end of the year.

That portion of Z-Street is as a partnership between the Gebremariams and Savaya Coffee. Gebremariam said he wants the marketplace to become a spot in the Sunshine Mile where people can come and hang out, enjoy events such as live music performances and dance parties, but most of all, to be in community.

“We owe everything to the community,” Gebremariam said. “We want this to be a place where people can come hang out. You know, you can come in the morning, watch a soccer game, get a coffee. It’ll be a really beautiful place away from Fourth Avenue, away from Downtown flooded with college kids, you know, that you can hang out and not feel out of place.”

Zemam’s Ethiopian Cuisine and Zerai’s International Bar are open from Tuesday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.