Haleluya, Hands Down!

You can place your order in American Sign Language at this popular Ethiopian spot in Fremont

Story and photos by Anna Mindess




The pale-yellow walls of Haleluya Ethiopian Gourmet in Fremont are festooned with traditional art, woven baskets, and a chart of the Ethiopian alphabet—familiar symbols to diners who may venture here from the Bay Area’s large Ethiopian communities in Oakland and San Jose. But many of the hands busily tearing off pieces of spongy injera to dip into mounds of spicy stews are occupied with a less-expected aspect of their convivial gathering: conversation in American Sign Language (ASL).

That surprise is partly due to the location of the restaurant. The 173-year-old California School for the Deaf (CSD)—possibly the most respected school for deaf children in the country—is a mere mile and a half away. But there’s a lot more to the story.


Left: Solomon Alemayehu, Nasya Solomon, Matthew Solomon, and Haleluya Assefa at Haleluya Ethiopian Gourmet in Fremont. Right: Nasya Solomon helps out in the restaurant kitchen.


From Addis Ababa to Fremont

Haleluya Assefa grew up in Addis Ababa. She was 12 when her stepmother passed away, and it was her father who taught her how to cook. Around age 20, she moved to Fremont to live with her aunt and pursue an education. While attending a nursing program at Chabot College, she learned that her family in Ethiopia needed assistance, so she stopped school and worked two jobs to have extra money to send home. She met Solomon Alemayehu, now her husband, through a friend in Fremont.

In 2010, the couple’s first child, Nasya, was born. (Her last name—Solomon—is her father’s first name as is the custom in Ethiopian culture.) The parents had early clues that their daughter’s hearing wasn’t as expected, but it wasn’t until Nasya was 15 months old that a test definitively confirmed the child’s deafness. These days, many doctors immediately steer parents to cochlear implant surgery, but Nasya’s inner ear structure ruled out that radical procedure. The family was advised to have Nasya learn sign language, and this fortuitous guidance opened the door to many opportunities for the whole family thanks to the California School for the Deaf.

“When we visited the CSD,” says Assefa, “I saw kids playing happily and signing with their friends. We realized it was a good place, and we didn’t need to worry.” 

With Nasya enrolled in the early childhood program at age 2, her parents started learning ASL in classes offered by the school. By the time their second child, Matthew, was born in 2013 (with typical hearing), Assefa was too busy to continue ASL classes, but her ongoing engagement with the CSD community kept her learning. Matthew has become a fluent ASL signer, thanks in large part to his sister. 



A Restaurant Born at the Farmers’ Market

In addition to raising a family, Assefa and Alemayehu shared a desire to start a restaurant. They began showcasing their cooking in 2015 at the Irvington Farmers’ Market, and by early 2019, they had found a plausible restaurant spot near the Fremont Hub Shopping Center. Formerly used as a frozen yogurt shop, the space didn’t have a kitchen, so they built one, which took nine months with all the permitting and approval processes. Haleluya Ethiopian Gourmet opened in November 2019, four months before Covid hit. On opening day, a line of Deaf customers from CSD waited outside with flowers to cheer on the new restaurant, and they haven’t stopped coming ever since.

One regular customer is Joshua Weinstock, a Deaf man who moved to Fremont 10 years ago. He has taught at CSD for seven years and had Nasya as a student in his second-grade class.

“I appreciated her sense of humor and friendliness,” he says. “When we talked in class about the different jobs that people have, she related about her family’s restaurant. She told the class her goal is to work there.”

Weinstock says that he started going to Haleluya right after it opened, and during the pandemic, he patronized their takeout.

“I love Ethiopian food and am happy not to have to travel to San Jose or Oakland from Fremont,” he says. “I love all their dishes. I usually order a combo platter to get a little of everything.”

That combo platter might include mounds of spiced lamb, chicken, and vegetable stews plus collard greens and deeply flavored fava bean, split pea, and lentil purées. But a big additional attraction for Deaf diners is easy access to information through ASL.

“I appreciate that I can ask about the menu and have the staff communicate back to me in sign language immediately rather than struggling to lip read or waiting for a pen and paper,” Weinstock adds.

CSD superintendent Clark Brooke started at the school as a math teacher 25 years ago. When Nasya was in second grade, he noticed how the child danced hip-hop outside, even though she was shy in class. When Brooke found out her parents had a food business, he encouraged staff members to support them, and he had Haleluya Ethiopian Gourmet cater each year’s new-staff luncheon, so more people would learn about the restaurant.

“I really appreciate Haleluya. I know how hard it is to start a small business,” he says. “It’s important that we all support [Assefa] because she is modeling being an entrepreneur for her daughter. And when Nasya sees how the Deaf community comes together in support, maybe she will be inspired to carry on the business.”

As of this fall, Nasya is an active middle schooler who delights in dance, basketball, and softball. Like many 12-year-olds, she loves hamburgers, hot dogs, and tacos, but she also enjoys the Ethiopian food her family makes, especially red lentils, atakilt (a cabbage and potato dish), and doro wat (a spicy chicken stew). Her responsibilities at the restaurant include cleaning the tables after customers leave and sweeping the floor. She also helps by peeling and chopping carrots and potatoes. She would like to cook, but mom says she’ll have to wait until she is 15, since there’s too much danger from hot oil in those pans on the stovetop. Nasya thinks it’s cool to see her friends and teachers from school come in to order at the restaurant.

On the Chronicle’s ‘Top Ethiopian’ List

Early in 2023, when a Deaf elementary school teacher from CSD came into the restaurant and excitedly signed something to Nasya’s mother, it was a little too fast for Assefa, who is still working on her ASL. “It was something about San Francisco and our restaurant, but I didn’t understand at first,” she admits. The woman then pulled up an article in the San Francisco Chronicle that named Haleluya as one of the top Ethiopian restaurants in the Bay Area.

“That was exciting and good for our business, as it has attracted many new customers to come and try our food,” she says.

But Assefa remains especially grateful to the CSD community, and not just for supporting her restaurant. “It’s where I learned to communicate in sign language. They were so supportive. I also learned about the culture. Hugging is very big in the Deaf community. It is a very warm culture. We are so fortunate to be located in Fremont.”

With her positive experiences in the Deaf community and with ASL, Assefa could well act as an ambassador for other hearing parents who suddenly discover they have a deaf child and are unsure about what to do. It might start with a plate of injera and a spicy stew at Haleluya Ethiopian Gourmet. ♦

Haleluya Ethiopian Gourmet
4144 Walnut Ave, Fremont
Open noon to 9, closed Mondays
510.270.8310 | Find on Facebook at Haleluya Ethiopian Gourmet

Anna Mindess is an award-winning journalist. She writes on food, culture, and travel for numerous publications including the Washington Post, Atlas Obscura, and Berkeleyside. She also works as an American Sign Language interpreter. Follow her on Instagram @annamindess and find her stories at annamindess.contently.com.





Solomon Alemayehu, Nasya Solomon, Matthew Solomon, and Haleluya Assefa at Haleluya Ethiopian Gourmet in Fremont.

Nasya Solomon helps out in the restaurant kitchen.