IN MORE THAN A DECADE of traveling the U.S. and Canada, visiting Ethiopian restaurants and chatting with their owners, I’ve had many good meals and many affable conversations. But from time to time, a place stays with me, always because of the exceptional cuisine, and sometimes because of the atmosphere and camaraderie as well. Here are a few restaurants that I always look forward to visiting. All were still open during the summer of 2016 when I wrote these squibs.
CHICAGO. Let’s begin with the very best: Lalibela in Chicago is probably my favorite Ethiopian restaurant on the continent.
Lalibela opened in 2008, and I immediately began to worry about it: All of Chicago’s other Ethiopian restaurants were on busy commercial streets, but Lalibela sat back a block from North Clark Street on the more residential North Ashland. It’s not a place you happen upon. Eight years later, though, it’s still around, renewing my faith in the belief that good things will prosper.
Samson Ayele, and his wife, Hirut Ayele, run the place together, although their business card lists Hirut as the owner. Sam has a day job as an engineer, and sometimes he’s away on business. When he’s not, he’s a host and server, with Hirut in the kitchen supervising the cooking. (He also designed the restaurant’s handsome chairs made of heavy wood, fabric and rope.) The restaurant was BYOB at first, but now it sells alcohol and charges a small corking fee if you bring your own.
The food at Lalibela is superb – always fresh and very spicy. The menu is huge. Meat dishes come with your choice of two veggie sides, and the veggie selections offer all of the usual dishes plus several rarely seen ones: sweet duba wot (pumpkin), hearty inguday tibs (mushrooms), beautifully prepared bamya (the hard-to-cook okra), and even bedergan (eggplant).
No matter where you are in sprawling Chicago, if you want a great Ethiopian meal, Lalibela is worth the trip.
TORONTO. What they lack in presentation at Nazareth, on Toronto’s multi-cultural Bloor Street West, they make up for it in flavor and atmosphere.
Well, maybe not atmosphere either: Nazareth is an intimate little restaurant with low lighting – and lots of plant life and Ethiopian fabrics hanging from the rafters. Get there too late at night and you’ll find yourself waiting more than an hour for a table, and then a good 30 minutes or more for your meal (or your takeout). There’s a bar, so you can wait there (if the four seats aren’t already taken). Thankfully, if you have to wait on the street, you’ll see lots of good-looking young people (and sometimes their dogs) walking by.
Nazareth has a small menu: just 10 items, all priced the same ($10.61 plus taxes, which brings it to $12, Canadian of course). You can get a veggie combo, a variety of beef and lamb dishes, a fish fillet, a seafood platter, and “chicken.” All dishes come with a green salad in a lemony dressing (traditional at Ethiopian restaurants), plus side dollops of ayib (Ethiopian cottage cheese).
So why do I say “chicken” rather than chicken? The beef and lamb dishes on the menu use Amharic names, but the restaurant names its sole chicken dish in English. The description, quite simply, says “fresh chicken stewed with spices.” I expected doro tibs – chunks of chicken breast in berbere sauce – when I ordered it. But to my surprise, it turned out to be doro wot, often called the national dish of Ethiopia: chicken drumsticks in a rich spicy sauce served with a hard-boiled egg.
I never order doro wot at Ethiopian restaurants for one reason: All you ever seem to get is one paltry drumstick, a portion much too abstemious for my appetite. Not so at Nazareth: My doro wot had five – yes, that’s right, five – succulent drumsticks, the meat so tender that it fell of the bone when it saw my injera-filled hand approaching. The kulet (sauce) was rich and flavorful, and I even ate the egg (you’re supposed to eat it, but I often don’t).
The only real problem with Nazareth is the look of the food on the platter. Ethiopian restaurants usually present combination meals discreetly, with space between each of the often many dishes, so you can see an array of colors on the round platter. At Nazareth, everything touches – and runs together (see photo above). It’s messy, and I’d rather they spread things out a little. But I figure: It’s all going to end up together in a few minutes anyway, so really, it’s no big deal.
GREATER WASHINGTON. I’ve dined at many restaurants in the huge Ethiopian diaspora of Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia, but two of them stand out: one in the District, and one in Alexandria, Va.
There are far too many Ethiopian restaurants to choose from in the contiguous Virginia suburbs of Falls Church, Alexandria and Arlington. So I’ll make it easy for you: Find your way to Enat in Alexandria, and be sure to wear your football jersey.
Or soccer, as we call it here: Ethiopians love the sport, and Enat bills itself as a restaurant and sports bar. On game days, good luck getting a table or even a seat at the bar. And if you do, expect to be one of the few non-Ethiopians in the place.
Abiy Bisrat, the restaurant’s owner, is also an occasional cook, a thoughtful and affable fellow. He worked in the food and beverage industry for many years with the Raddison hotel chain, and he bought his restaurant in 2009 from another restaurant owner. While looking for a name, his daughter, 3 years old at the time, said, “I like Enat, daddy.” The word means “mother” in Amharic.
Several big-screen TVs adorn the walls of Enat, and fans don’t restrain their enthusiasm during a game. It’s a wonderful atmosphere in which to eat Abiy’s splendid cuisine: The vegetarian platter is the most diverse I’ve ever seen at an Ethiopian restaurant – 10 different selections, some of them not even on the regular menu – and every one is perfect, a feast beyond belief.
His tables have shakers filled with mitmita, the fiery pepper powder, if you want your food even spicier, and he offer qocho, a chewy, fermented, bread-like food made from the enset plant, often called the false banana because it resembles a banana tree. It’s pretty much impossible to make in the U.S., so Abiy imports it from Ethiopia, where it’s traditionally eaten with kitfo. In fact, my server at Enat once looked at me strangely when I simply asked for an order of qocho without kitfo. It took a few tries to assure her that I knew what I was ordering.
THINGS HAVE CHANGED A LOT during the past decade for Zenebech Dessu, the owner and namesake of Zenebech Injera Restaurant in Washington, D.C.
Back when her business began, she mostly just made injera for sale at Ethiopian markets and restaurants in D.C., Virginia and Maryland. Aided by her husband and her sons – who made daily morning deliveries of the injera that she had just spent all night cooking – she was a well-known brand name in the area. Her little restaurant also served food, although it wasn’t her mainstay at first.
Not any more. Zenebech still makes injera, but her remodeled restaurant now seats more people – about 25 or so indoors, and another 10 or so al fresco – and has an expanded menu along with takeout. It’s become a trendy place for young residents of the gentrifying neighborhood, and no wonder: good food and low prices, even for the several brands of Ethiopian beer, wine and t’ej.
It takes me 10 seconds to order at Zenebech: I get the mehaberawi, a satisfying combination platter of four meat and four vegetable dishes. The veggie portions include shiro, and the meat offerings give you a taste of everything: mild lamb, spicy beef, doro wot and even kitfo, chopped beef traditionally served raw (although I ask for mine yebesele – that is, fully cooked). It’s a feast probably meant for two, but I’ve never had a problem polishing it off by myself.
CHARLOTTE. The city’s first Ethiopian restaurant opened in 2002, and it’s still in business. But it was never really Ethiopian at all.
That’s because Tecle Gebremussie, who owns Red Sea, is from Eritrea, and here and there, his menu shows it.
First, he offers some Eritrean-style spaghetti dishes, a cultural remnant of his country’s more than half century of colonization by Italy (from the 1880s to the 1940s). And if you order the vegetarian platter, you’ll get to taste silsi, an Eritrean puree made of stewed tomatoes and onions spiced with berbere – sometimes (as is the case at Red Sea) blazingly so. I’d never seen silsi at an Ethiopian or Eritrean restaurant before, and I enjoyed it so much that when I got home, I contacted an Eritrean-American former student of mine who got me her mother’s recipe.
Tecle’s menu names some of his dishes in both Tigrinya (the language of Eritrea) and Amharic (the state language of Ethiopia). So you’ll see tebsi zelzel along side siga tibs, or tshebi doro next to doro wot. If you’re accustomed to the spicy red lentil dish misir wot, get ready to ask for timtimo, and collard greens are hamli rather than the more familiar Amharic gomen. It’s good food by any name, and the vegetarian platter, with includes silsi, is especially spicy, flavorful and generous.
He also serves honey wine, although when I visited a few years ago, it was a brand of mead, not Ethiopian t’ej. But I know that Tecle is friends with Araya Yibrehu, who makes Axum Tej in New York, so maybe Red Sea will serve it some day.
NEW YORK. Bati opened in early 2009 in Fort Greene, an eclectic Brooklyn neighborhood just blocks from the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I dined at the restaurant right after its launch, and I’ve never forgotten the tasty food and its young co-owner, Hibist Legesse, who told me that she hoped the arty crowd would help her restaurant grow and thrive. Seven years later, she’s still there.
The daughter of an Ethiopian banker, Hibist came to American in 1992 to attend a private high school near Buffalo and has lived here ever since. She had her first Ethiopian restaurant meal in the 1990s at the now-gone Abyssinia in Manhattan. Her name means “manna” in Amharic, and it derives from hbst, the ancient Ethiopic word for “bread.”
In 2008, while remodeling the storefront that became Bati, Hibist returned to Ethiopia for the first time since leaving there, and she brought back some work by contemporary Ethiopian painters to adorn the walls. The restaurant is intimate and crowded when it’s busy, but in a warm way. From table to table, and even at each table, her customers are diverse and, she told me, “savvy as hell” – educated and curious.
On a Sunday evening in March, just a month after Bati opened, the place was packed and stayed that way. A couple with a baby in a stroller required a high chair, and when they learned that Bati didn’t have one, they decided not to stay. But they came back 10 minutes later, parked the stroller next to their table, and improvised.
They were first-timers with Ethiopian cuisine, and when their food arrived, they glanced casually around the room to see exactly how to do it before they began to eat. Their baby was too young for the food, but across the room, a 3-year-old Japanese-American girl with her parents mastered injera quickly and began to grab chunks of mildly spiced lamb.
Hibist told me that she wanted Bati to specialize in healthy food and fast friendly service. When she opened, she made her injera with 60 percent teff, but now, if you give the restaurant 24 hours notice, they’ll serve pure teff injera for people who require a gluten-free meal. It’s a destination worth the trip outside of Manhattan for a rewarding Ethiopian meal.
BOSTON. In multi-ethnic neighboring Somerville, Fasika serves the local Ethiopian community, as well as upscale ferenj willing to make the trek, an easy train ride on the Orange line from Boston proper, followed by a short walk from the Somerville T station. There’s a bar on one side and a restaurant on the other, with separate street entrances for each. A wall of wood and glass separates them, but you can go from one side to the other through a door. The bartender on the day I visited a few years ago was a hefty silver-haired fellow with a Boston accent.
The restaurant side is a gathering place for Ethiopian friends and families, and on a weeknight in August, a table with three or four young men kept growing and growing as more friends entered. They all greeted each other with ebullient handshakes, hugs and shoulder bumps, and before long, the circle was so wide that some of the revelers were practically sitting at the neighboring table. Meanwhile, across the room, an American couple asked their server to explain each dish on their platter, and before their meal ended, they took a picture of themselves leaning into their leftovers.
The food at Fasika is straightforward, tasty and served in generous portion. The restaurant also offers homemade t’ej in a berele, a rarity among Ethiopian restaurants in the U.S. I almost never order t’ej in restaurants, but this time, I was glad that I did: It was a smooth accompaniment to my meal, well worth the train ride from Boston.
And while you’re in the vicinity, consider a trip to Habesha, a very good Ethiopian restaurant in Malden, also just adjacent to Boston, and once again a train ride and a short walk from the T station. I enjoyed dinner there as well, although they didn’t have any homemade t’ej when I visited.
CINCINNATI. A few summers ago, passing through Cincinnati on my way west, I almost missed the opportunity to have lunch at Elephant Walk. Glad I didn’t just keep driving.
Buffets and I are a bad mix: I hate to see good food left uneaten. And at Elephant Walk, there was a lot of it. An Indian man and his Ethiopian wife own the restaurant, and their menu offers both cuisines. I stuck largely to the Ethiopian offerings on the magnificent lunch buffet: Along with the breads injera and nan, you can eat your fill of half a dozen dishes from each cuisine, including (on the day I visited) such hard-to-find Ethiopian dishes as inguday tibs and bedergan wot (that’s mushrooms and eggplant, respectively).
Elephant Walk served the best Ethiopian buffet I’ve ever had: moist tender doro tibs, spicy chunks of white meat chicken surrounded by onions and peppers; misir wot, the popular red lentil dish, rich with ginger; kik alicha, well-cooked split yellow peas; tangy inguday tibs, with thick slices of mushroom joined by onions, tomatoes and green peppers; bedergan wot with carrots; and the traditional gomen for a dose of greens. I also sampled two Indian dishes: chicken tikka masala, creamy and effervescent; and the unusual tandoori wings.
Both cuisines use clarified butter in their meat dishes. But where Indian ghee is just butter, Ethiopian niter kibe adds spices during the clarification process. My server, a young Ethiopian woman, said the restaurant uses kibe in its Ethiopian dishes, but rather than ghee in the Indian recipes, “they use ours,” she said – meaning that the Indian cooks use kibe rather than ghee. This hints at who wears the culinary pants in the family.
Chatting with the restaurant employees after my meal, I learned that Cincinnati had an Ethiopian market, so I decided to pay a visit. But I didn’t know the city and didn’t have GPS. So the wait staff patiently gave me directions – and I found the place easily, about four miles away. I’m eager to return to this eclectic and generous Ethio-plus restaurant.
ATLANTA. For the Ethiopian food virgin in Atlanta, Desta Ethiopian Kitchen may be the place to lose it.
The food is delicious – very spicy, in fact – and you can eat it in the traditional way if you prefer. But doing so will take some extra effort.
I noticed on my way to my table that Desta serves its food on square painted porcelain plates, with injera on the side and cutlery to eat the food. I saw almost no one using injera to grab the food, although a couple at a table across from me split the difference: She used injera, he used a fork.
So when my server took my order, I asked her if the kitchen could serve my selections with the food atop the injera. She seemed a bit puzzled by the request (she was Ethiopian). My food arrived in bowls, and I had the task of lining my plate with the injera and spooning the food onto it. No problem.
I can’t say the same for the two college students on a date sitting two tables away from me. I arrived after they had received their food, and as they gobbled it up using a fork, I saw that they hadn’t touched their injera. At the end of the meal, they told their server that it was their first time eating Ethiopian food and it was “very good.” But when the server mentioned the untouched injera, the guy said, “We didn’t know how to eat it.” The server apologized for not explaining. Their entrées gone, they nibbled on the injera and used it to sop up some sauce that remained on their plates.
I’d call that getting to third base.
Ribka (Titi) Demissie, the restaurant’s owner/chef, told me that they serve the food this way “to make everyone feel comfortable,” and while not many customers ask for a traditional plate, the restaurant is happy to serve it that way. We talked after my meal, and I didn’t share my experience. I saw no need: The food was great, the portions generous, the atmosphere convivial.
MONTREAL. Located along the city’s Rue Sherbrooke West in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce – a neighborhood with multi-cultural restaurants, an increasingly young professional population, and a slightly bohemian feel – East Africa Restaurant is a tiny place, longer than it is wide, with eight tables that seat a total of 16 people, plus a few more tables on a small outdoor patio (weather permitting).
It’s owned by Maritu Mekuria and Abraham Yohannes, a married couple who themselves represent some of the diversity of Ethiopia: Maritu is Beta Israel – an Ethiopian Jew – and Abraham, who isn’t Jewish, was born in Asmara back when Eritrea was still a federated state of Ethiopia. The couple launched East Africa Restaurant in February 2011, offering a big menu for such a little place. They don’t label their cuisine “Ethiopian,” though, out of respect for both of their cultures.
Maritu is also the city’s supplier of injera, which she makes for her restaurant and sells at two local markets owned by non-Ethiopian immigrants.
I had two dinners there during my visit to Montreal: On Saturday, Maritu cooked while Abraham waited on tables, but on Monday it was all Maritu, all night. (Sometimes their teen-age daughter, Betty, helps with the tables.) The restaurant kept busy with a steady flow of customers both nights, although the clientele didn’t always seem to be terribly sophisticated when it came to the cuisine.
One couple on Monday night drilled Maritu on the spice level of the food, so she assured them that it wasn’t too fiery. Another couple were first-timers at an Ethiopian restaurant: The husband had cooked it once at home, with mixed results, and now wanted to try the real thing. But the wife was spice-aversive, so it took them a while to find dishes that wouldn’t burn her sensitive palate.
Another table consisted of two middle-aged American women and the adult son of one of them. They had eaten the cuisine before but still seemed like novices: They asked for some bread before the meal the way one would at an American restaurant. So Maritu brought them some complementary veggie dishes to nibble on with injera before their dinners arrived. That pacified them.
Then there were the two difficult young women who didn’t seem to believe that Maritu understood their order. They kept repeating it – they both ordered the same dish – and when Maritu said she would give them a complementary side salad (described on the menu), they asked twice if she had a salad with lettuce. No, she said, just the tomato salad she had offered them. They finally seemed to be content with the proffer.
My meals were wonderful, a mix of meat and vegetarian dishes, and the mom-‘n’-pop character of the little place made it taste even better.