Aman Cafe is Tiyo Shibabaw’s second restaurant. Her first, Teni East Kitchen, is right next door. Where Teni East Kitchen serves a range of Burmese dishes, Aman Cafe is devoted to one dish, “mostly vegetarian flaky, buttery Malaysian roti canai.” Roti is a flatbread, an excellent side dish to dip in and mop up curries and sauces. But Shibabaw decided to make roti the star of its own restaurant because, “Everyone at Teni East orders roti. I realized that I could take it a bit further.”
The chef and owner said that she wanted to combine this popular dish with vegetables like golden beets, carrots and potatoes. “We created this spicy coconut sauce that goes really well with it,” Shibabaw said. She thought of roti as a blank canvas, in the same way that pizza or focaccia doughs are used. In this iteration, her business model emulates a crêperie. Aman Cafe serves both savory and sweet dishes.
I tried one in each category and split them with a friend. The “Roti Comfort” ($10) is served with mixed vegetables and tofu. My friend, a roti devotee, remembers trying it for the first time at a restaurant in Burlingame. I first tried it at Straits, on Geary Boulevard in San Francisco, long before the restaurant closed its doors. Although I couldn’t quite account for it, Roti Comfort was slightly savory and slightly sweet. Perhaps it was the addition of tofu that added an element of sweetness.
“Zag Roti” ($7) is definitely a dessert. The roti is decorated with a banana, sliced in rounds that have been cooked in condensed milk. After baking, the milk turned a dark, golden-brown color. Essentially, it transformed into a syrup. Other sweet options include variations with seasonal fruit; one of which uses vegan condensed milk and nigella, or black cumin seeds.
The menu as a whole is notable for serving vegetarian dishes. There’s only entree with chicken, vegetables and spices ($11). Shibabaw herself isn’t a vegetarian, even though vegetables make up to 80% of her diet. But after running Teni East for five years, she noticed an interesting statistic. She saw that 25% of Teni East’s menu is strictly vegetarian—the menu includes seafood, lamb and beef—but that 50% of her sales came from vegetarian orders.
Shibabaw was born in Ethiopia, but after settling down in Oakland in 1997 she decided to stay. “One thing about Oakland—you can really travel without traveling, just on Telegraph Avenue,” she said. “You can go to a Korean, Ethiopian or Eritrean restaurant.” She joined the Burma Superstar restaurant group in 2007 to learn her way around the kitchen and to learn how to cook Asian food. When Burma Superstar expanded to the East Bay, Shibabaw managed the front and back of the house at the location on Alameda.
“I worked with so many immigrants from Burma, spending time with them and learning how they layered dishes,” she said. She found that their approach to cooking was similar to her own Ethiopian family’s techniques. “The only things I had to get used to were fish sauce and shrimp paste.”
After 10 years with Burma Superstar, Shibabaw wanted to do her own interpretation of what Burmese food is. With Teni East and Aman Cafe, she’s also working with her friends now. “I wanted to mix herbs and spices from Southeast Asia with California greens and make it a bit more fresh and bright,” she said. “That’s what Teni East Kitchen is.”
Growing up, Shibabaw helped out at her parents’ restaurant. “It’s a small town where my parents have built a hotel that just serves the community,” she said. But the chef, who trains her staff how to prepare the dishes on her menus, also learned how to cook at home. “It’s a big family, cooking for 30 or 40 people a day.” Running two restaurants sounds much less complicated. “The Bay Area, in general, I find is really amazing,” she said. “I’m just constantly learning and growing as a person.”
Aman Cafe, open Monday to Saturday, 8am to 3pm; 4021 Broadway, Oakland. 510.922.8749.