Ethiopian food makes me think of sex. Really sloppy, messy, no-holds-barred sex, the kind people in the movies have with things like clay and old Righteous Brothers tunes as marital aids. Sure, almost any food can be sexy (especially with the right dining companion), but few cuisines invite such total immersion, such intimate encounters as eating Ethiopian.
Recent experiences at two local Ethiopian restaurants did nothing to disabuse me of this notion. In fact, fellow diners at The Ethiopian Restaurant and Queen of Sheba were quite helpful in reinforcing the idea.
Our visit to the Ethiopian came by default. One of those insistent snowstorms deterred us from our intended destination of Golden, where the dinosaur rock group Sweet awaited. Despite my husband's valiant attempt to get us out of town (he had to contend not only with icy roads and blinding flurries, but also with my top-of-the-lungs rendition of "Ballroom Blitz"), we were stuck in the center of town. Looking for a place to wait out the storm, we did a quick run-through of the phone book (always in our car for occasions such as these) and came across the nearby Ethiopian. On such a cold night, the thought of squishing warm food between our fingers definitely appealed.
We sat down in the uncrowded restaurant and quickly placed our order. About ten minutes later another couple entered and took a table across the room. A half-hour and several large, steaming platters of food for other people later, we were getting pretty hungry. I became obsessed with the time, looking at my watch and announcing every five minutes that another five minutes had gone by. It really hurt when the couple that had come in after us was served first. And then, to make matters worse, these two started in on the loudest session of food consumption I have ever witnessed. They slurped, they mmmmmed, they ahhhed, they licked their fingers between every bite. At one point, the woman said, "Oh, my God." We thought we would go mad. In an attempt to make our server think we had died from starvation, we put our heads down on the table. But when I closed my eyes, I could still hear those two going at it. Our platter arrived soon thereafter; thank heaven the food turned out to be almost worth the hour-long wait. The usual base of several pieces of injera (a flat, fermented Ethiopian bread) bore our two choices: yebeg alicha ($9.25) and special tibs ($8.95), as well as the Ethiopian's mainstay side dishes. The yebeg alicha offered a generous portion of lamb chunks held together by a mild version of niter kibbeh, Ethiopia's spiced, clarified butter. Niter kibbeh often contains turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, garlic and onion; here it tasted mainly of garlic, with hints of ginger and a little nutmeg. The spiced butter also made an appearance in the tibs, cubes of top round slowly cooked with green peppers, onions and Awaze, an Ethiopian hot sauce that had less kick than we expected but still provided a fair amount of flavor. The thick, heavy consistency of the dish suggested that it had been cooked for quite a while; the beef almost fell apart at the touch of a fork. Later, I thought that perhaps this had caused the delay of our meal, but owner Negussie Denju says only the doro wot ($6.75), a chicken stew, takes extra time to prepare.
We would have waited even longer for the excellent side dishes. Azefa consists of green lentils that have been pureed almost to a liquid and heavily spiced. You had to play detective with the flavors here: I could taste cumin and garlic for sure, but paprika was only a guess. Whatever the ingredients, the end result was a smooth, unique blend that showed off chef/part-owner Elleni Mekonnen's magic hand with the spice rack. She displayed real wizardry on the tekel gomen; only a real cabbage hater would snub this dish. Large pieces of the vegetable had been cooked down with onions and a nebulous mixture of spices into an addictive glop that had to be the main cause of our neighbors' lip-smacking and exclamations, because we found ourselves doing the same thing through the whole cabbage patch.
Given the generosity of the portions and a basket filled with four more pieces of injera--the Ethiopian's version is more highly fermented than most, with an almost yogurtlike quality--we couldn't have ordered dessert even if the restaurant had any to offer. And because of our dinner's tardiness, we passed up our favorite part (aside from the food foreplay) of an Ethiopian meal: the coffee.
A pot of that coffee served in traditional Ethiopian style turned out to be the best part of our meal at Queen of Sheba. This place is even more sparsely decorated than the Ethiopian and has the same type of unimaginative menu (101 ways to prepare food with berbere and niter kibbeh), but the Queen's lower prices also buy a lower quality of food. Not that owner Zewditu Aboye doesn't give it her best shot. During the week she serves as a one-woman crew, taking orders, cooking, serving and bussing--and still managing to be one of the most charming people around. She told us that she is the fourth Queen of Sheba owner in as many years, and her interesting tales of past work as a cook for the Syrian ambassador led me to believe she's trying to do too much on her own, with the food suffering as a consequence. Although wot is the Ethiopian word for "stew," yatakelt wot ($4.50) is actually a vegetarian combo of potatoes boiled to mush with onions, carrots and green beans. Sheba's menu mentions garlic and gingerroot; we found none. The dish tasted like boiled potatoes that had been chilled and then reheated. This wot was supposed to be served with misser wot, a lentil stew, but the kitchen had run out of it. Instead Zewditu served up gomen, a mess of collard greens and little bits of onion that was short on garlic and long on jalapenos. The greens had the dry bitterness of age.
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Beyaynetu($6.50) brought another stew combo, this time with meats. Doro wot featured a drumstick sitting in a glue of what is described as "red hot pepper berbere, pure butter and imported spices" but came off as a cheap barbecue sauce. Berbere is the spice mixture that makes Ethiopian cooking taste like Ethiopian cooking; here it tasted like nothing I've had before (or would want again). The spiced, hard-boiled egg on the side did nothing for this wot, either. The ke'y yesiga was better--though still basic and boring--with its shreds of top round and a "homemade sauce" that was garlicky and hot with red chiles. After that we were glad to cool off with an order of the house salad ($1.99), a disappointing pile of iceberg lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers that surprised us with a perky sweet-and-sour dressing.
Its zest was more than matched by Zewditu's coffee ritual. After roasting the beans (and sharing a few green ones with us), she filled a basket of beans hot from the oven and waved them under our noses, delighting in our enjoyment. She then brought out the pot, along with those adorable demitasses, gave us each a roasted bean for good measure, lit a clay pot of incense and handed us two pieces of incense to take home. We reveled in the coffee, which poured like syrup and gave us the jolt of a cold shower.
Which is just what we needed after witnessing the display in the corner, where a couple had taken to heart Queen of Sheba's recommendation: Placing a wad of food in another's mouth is a sign of affection, and Queen of Sheba "would like for you to...enjoy this delicacy to the fullest," the menu advises (complete with suggestive photo). With these two, fingers and the rest of the hand, as well as noses and mouths, became involved, and my husband and I good-naturedly searched our pockets for the price of a motel room to help them out.
If only we could get these places to deliver...