Order the Texas sheet cake at Smoke’N Ash BBQ in South Arlington and, as advertised, you’ll get a rectangle of moist chocolate cake with a generous layer of sweet, chocolate icing. But nestled into the icing are chunks of Texas pecans tinted a startling color of red, which is especially striking against the backdrop of a stark white plate. Don’t be alarmed. It’s not cayenne, but a special blend of berbere spice shipped in from Ethiopia. The blend of chiles and spices is to Ethiopian cuisine what salt and pepper is to Texas brisket. It provides a rush of warmth to the cake, and the combination of this African spice and a thoroughly Texan dessert is just one small example of the joyous adventure of a meal that can be eaten at what is probably the world’s only Tex-Ethiopian smokehouse.
Owners Patrick and Fasicka Hicks, from Waco and Addis Ababa, respectively, don’t know of another Ethiopian restaurant that has rolled Texas barbecue into its menu, or vice versa, and neither do I. They didn’t set out to expand Texas barbecue horizons when they opened Smoke’N Ash BBQ as a barbecue-only joint in 2018. I visited back then, and left without much to say about the combo plate I’d consumed. I confessed this to the couple during a recent meal—I ate lunch there two days in a row last week—and Fasicka laughed. “We didn’t know what we were doing then,” she said. Their offerings have changed dramatically over the past three years.
Patrick met Fasicka in 1997, a year after she emigrated from Ethiopia to Arlington. She was working the register at a Diamond Shamrock station and he asked for her number; they’ve been together ever since. They had two kids, and Fasicka cooked the Ethiopian dishes she’d learned from her mother for her own family. Patrick had a day job, but he had grown up watching his family run two now-closed barbecue joints in Waco and Dallas, and always wanted to carry on the tradition. The couple opened a weekend barbecue truck in 2012, and six years later they went all in on a permanent location in Arlington.
In 2019, Fasicka was looking for a new challenge in the Smoke’N Ash kitchen. “I got bored,” she explained, so she looked to her own roots for inspiration. She suggested to Patrick that they add an Ethiopian menu. Patrick admits he was a little worried at first: “We spent a lot of money on the Ethiopian part, and it wasn’t producing.” But now he has no regrets.
The couple thought serving traditional Ethiopian dishes to their barbecue clientele would be confusing, so they decided to treat it as a separate restaurant that just happened to share an address with their barbecue joint. They called it Cherkose Ethiopian Cuisine, after the neighborhood in Addis Ababa where Fasicka grew up and her late mother’s maiden name.
Cherkose brought in new customers from the Ethiopian community in the DFW area, and some of the barbecue-loving regulars tried the cuisine for the first time. A few asked for a combination of the two. Patrick remembers one early customer who enjoyed the loaded barbecue fries, but asked if they could be served with the sauce from the doro wat, an Ethopian chicken stew. The couple gradually expanded the fusion options thanks in part to Shan Wong, who goes by @polyglotfoodie on Instagram. Wong suggested the Hickses be more assertive in combining the two cuisines into new dishes. I met Wong in line for a barbecue pop-up in Longview, and just a few minutes into our first conversation he urged me to revisit Smoke’N Ash. It took a few months, but we met there for lunch last week and shared a cross-cultural meal like I’d never had before.
Tibs is an Ethiopian dish made from lamb or beef sautéed with onions, peppers and spices. At Smoke’N Ash, the tibs are made with smoked pork rib tips instead. They’re lightly seasoned with berbere spices, and served hot and glistening right out of the pan. It’s the tamest dish on the Tex-Ethiopian menu, which is full of flavor and anything but subtle. Pork ribs are available in four additional preparations, which is normal in Texas but not in Ethiopian cuisine—pork consumption is forbidden by the nation’s two major religions, Islam and Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity.
I enjoyed the Tex-Ethiopian smoked spareribs, tender smoked St. Louis–cut ribs coated in a deep red sauce called awaze. Think of awaze as the precursor to Nashville hot chicken sauce. It begins with kibe, made from a mix of cardamom, caraway seeds, nigella, garlic, ginger, and koseret (an Ethiopian herb that’s like a citrusy mint) steeped in clarified butter. Fasicka adds berbere spices to the kibe to make awaze. The awaze butter carries the smoky, spicy flavor of the berbere to every nook of the pork rib. The meat has a depth of savoriness that’s unusual in Texas, where our pork rib glaze is typically sweet. The awaze also coats thick slices of smoked brisket, with a meltingly tender cap of rendered fat.
Every family’s berbere spice blend is a little different, and Fasicka was kind enough to share the ingredients in hers. Her sister in Ethiopia combines dried and ground chiles with dried shallots, ginger, garlic, rue leaves, caraway seeds, nigella, clove, cinnamon, and coriander. This is not a barbecue rub you’ll find in a Meat Church shaker.
Both Texas barbecue and Ethiopian food are best enjoyed with your hands rather than utensils. Napkins make that possible with barbecue, but Ethiopians use injera, a spongy, flat sourdough bread, to scoop up every bite. At Smoke’N Ash the large Tex-Ethiopian barbecue platters are served on a circular tray lined with injera to soak up all the sauces. More injera is rolled up on the side for tearing and scooping the saucy meats, stews, and vegetables. Fasicka makes her own injera with teff flour imported from Ethiopia.
If there’s a single house specialty at Smoke’N Ash, it’s the smoked doro wat. (“Doro” is the Amharic word for chicken, and “wat” means stew.) Patrick puts a good dose of hickory smoke on the chicken before it’s stewed until tender in the sauce. The sauce is thick, robust, and has more of the berbere spice. Don’t leave here without trying it.
You’ll find plenty more “wat” options on the menu of sixteen sides. Shiro wat is made with chickpeas; misir wat with split red lentils; and ater kik wat with yellow split peas. The latter tasted bland next to all of the other high-octane flavors surrounding it on the platter, as did the Ethiopian-style collard greens called gomen. All the sides listed above are vegan, as are most of the others. If not, descriptors like “beefy smoked collard greens,” which I loved, make the meat content obvious.
Of course, the barbecue sauce is made with berbere; it’s slightly sweet and not too thick. Fasicka blends jalapeños, onions, and carrots into a paste, then adds it to the barbecue sauce for a dip served alongside the sambusas, which look like a flatter version of Indian samosas. They’re stuffed with chopped brisket and onions then folded and fried to a crisp. A dip in the sauce makes them sing. Wong has encouraged them to bottle it, and I cannot disagree.
Like tortillas, injera is best served fresh. Traditionally, the hardening leftovers are stewed with tomatoes, onion, and garlic for an Ethiopian dish called firfir. But this Tex-Ethiopian joint has smartly added eggs, jalapeños, and smoked brisket to make their own version of migas. They also fry the injera to make chips for loaded injera nachos topped with awaze-rubbed brisket, ayib (an Ethiopian cheese), and pico de gallo. The Hickses aren’t hemmed in by the rules of Texas barbecue or of traditional Ethiopian food. They’re having fun, and the joy comes through on the plate.
The food here is both brand-new and rooted in the family’s history, and that includes its history in Texas. On Friday and Saturday, Patrick serves fried rib tips inspired by his many visits to Mitch’s Corner Stop in Waco. Patrick uses the same battering and frying technique as Mitch’s, but the batter is seasoned with berbere spice before and after frying. The preparation sends a classic Texas dish into a new dimension of flavor and smokiness.
The Hickses are great hosts as well as great cooks. They’re gracious with their service, especially when it comes to post-meal coffee. The coffee beans are from Ethiopia, of course, and Fasicka finishes roasting them in a cast-iron pan that she brings out to grace the table with her coffee-scented incense before retreating to the kitchen to brew it. Ask for the bowl of berbere-spiced smoked popcorn to go with the coffee, which is strong and served in small cups. It made for a unique conclusion to a thoroughly unique barbecue meal. Smoke’N Ash BBQ might be the only restaurant of its kind in the world, but get there fast, because it likely won’t be the only one for long.