Lilypad on the Run
In Washington, D.C., Ethiopian cuisine is served up fresh and fast — from a food truck.
It’s a brutally hot and humid summer day in Washington, D.C., and I start sweating the moment I step outside my air-conditioned car. I’ve parked by the L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station, just south of the National Mall. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum looms in front of me while, off in the distance, I can see the tip of the Washington Monument. But I’m not here to sightsee; rather, I’m making my way to a line of food trucks pulled up to the curb. Federal workers on their lunch break and hungry tourists have already started to gather around them.
Over the last decade, food trucks have become an integral part of the dining scene in many American cities. The nation’s capital alone is home to hundreds of such nomadic bistros, which showcase cuisine from around the globe. And yet today, one stands out from all the rest. It is a cheery fern green, sports a small Lion of Judah flag in the takeout window, bears the name “Lilypad on the Run” — and serves some of the best Ethiopian food in the District.
This mobile eatery belongs to Lily Habtom, a native Ethiopian who moved to the United States from her hometown of Addis Ababa in 1999. With her hair pulled back under a camouflage scarf and donning a black apron, she exudes a warm but no-nonsense energy. Leaning out the window, she patiently answers questions from passersby, many of who have never before eaten her homeland’s food.
“It’s spicy,” she warns one potential customer interested in ordering the tibs (braised beef bits). “Here, try it,” she adds, handing him a bite to taste.
There’s a nibble, a smile, a sale. Throughout the ensuing lunch rush, Lily offers innumerable samples — and wins over many first-timers. I’m no novice when it comes to Ethiopian food, so I’m excited to try Lily’s take on the cuisine and gain a bit of insight into her whole operation. As I perch in the front seat, she brings me a Styrofoam container brimming with small mounds of everything from beef tibs and doro wat (spicy chicken stew) to stewed cabbage and shiro (stewed chickpeas), as well as folded flaps of spongy injera bread. My first bite is of a vividly red, highly flavorful tomato salad with a component I can’t place, so I ask Lily. “I have my own secret seasonings,” she says with a smile. “Lots of people ask me about it. But I never tell.”
As I use torn bits of bread to scoop up samples of her various dishes, I occasionally lose track of where I am and accidentally honk the horn by resting my meal on it; or I move my head too quickly, banging it on the small fire extinguisher hanging behind the driver’s seat. There’s not much space inside the restaurant on wheels — which is about 5 meters long — but it still manages to contain a small sink, a compact refrigerator, a four-burner stove, two small counters, more than a dozen containers full of pre-cooked food, and storage space for a variety of pots, pans and other utensils. Lily cooks in these cramped confines every weekday morning before she goes out to feed the D.C. lunch crowd. She says it takes precision and planning to pull it off. “If you’re not organized, the food won’t be good,” she says.
Though she uses locally purchased vegetables and meats, all of her spices are imported from Ethiopia to ensure that her dishes contain the most authentic flavors. She wanted to use injera flown in from her home country but found it too sour for her taste, so she buys it from a local baker instead.
Surprisingly, the enterprising entrepreneur doesn’t have any professional culinary training. But after years of receiving compliments from friends for whom she cooked, she bought the food truck for US$65,000 in 2012 and christened it Lilypad on the Run. “I was scared at first,” she recalls, “because I didn’t know how they were going to literally eat it.”
But her generally white-collar clientele quickly overcame any unfamiliarity with Ethiopian flavors or awkwardness over eating with their hands. And the truck just as swiftly earned accolades from the local press, with Washingtonian magazine naming it one of the District’s best food trucks in 2014.
So for four years now, Lily has been rolling out most weekdays to serve between 80 and 100 diners over the course of the two-hour lunch service at various spots throughout the city. She takes off a month in the winter when she goes to visit her family, who now lives in Amsterdam.
And over the years, her fervent following has only grown — a testament not only to Lily’s cooking, but also to her unrelentingly cheery disposition and deep interest in her customers’ lives. “They are my friends,” she says.
Around noon, with the lunch rush in full swing, one of her longtime clients walks up to the truck. Lily asks him how he enjoyed the Fourth of July celebrations the previous week and how his children are doing. As he answers, she fills up a container of beef tibs and hands it over.
“Thanks,” he says. “I’m excited for my lunch today.”
“Thank you,” she replies. “It’s always nice to see you. Say hello to your family for me.”
Nevin Martell is a Washington, D.C.–based freelance writer who covers food, travel and parenting (sometimes simultaneously). A longtime lover of Ethiopian cuisine, he relishes any opportunity to dig into a mound of tibs and doro wat.