For more than a year, Mark Antonation ate his way up Federal Boulevard. With that journey done, he'll now explore different cuisines from around the globe right here in metro Denver, one month at a time, in Ethniche. Last month was Hawaiian. And June? Ethiopian.
Heading away from Capitol Hill on Colfax, skirting Cheesman Park, sliding past Congress Park into neighborhoods east of Colorado Boulevard, a driver might be tempted to gawk at the wondrous mixture, reading each sign for the clues and markers of good food and drink. But the shifting traffic, unpredictable pedestrian movements and lane-hogging RTD buses make for difficult and dangerous sightseeing, much less fully absorbing the boggling diversity of bars, restaurants, shops and people. Better to sit in the passenger seat, piloted in an eastward path, from where patterns can be observed and analyzed. Ethiopian restaurants, whether wrapped in the red, yellow and green bands mimicking the country's flag or like the Queen of Sheba, crouching demurely amid innocuous markets, barber shops and thrift stores, reveal themselves in spurts and clusters, adding their complex and welcoming blend of spices to the roiling kitchen of Denver's most awe-inspiring stretch of asphalt. This is definitely the metro area's primary, though not only, Ethiopian zone.
Never mind that I'm almost always the driver. I've developed a skill -- honed in the year and a half spent trolling for taco joints and pho parlors on Federal Boulevard -- for spotting hand-painted or otherwise thriftily constructed restaurant signs that often signal hidden delights within. And if I miss a turn, a trip around the block past quaint Craftsman cottages and war-era brick bungalows serves to reveal back-street views into Colfax's residential life, with front-yard vegetable beds and chain-link fences bowed with the weight of overgrown ivy or invasive tendrils of bindweed.
So, predictably, I sailed past the peeling sign above the Queen of Sheba, focused as I was on tallying the other Ethiopian grottoes on the stretch. A U-turn and a lazy drift back into the low-slanting sunlight brought us to a strip-mall parking lot just on the verge of succumbing to the fast spring dandelions bolting from pavement cracks and crevices. No reservations means you're never late, and we were just in time to grab the last two-top in the dining room, or so I thought. I misinterpreted a vague gesture from a woman peering out from the kitchen door; it turned out she wanted us at a vacant four-top so that the single diner who entered behind us could have the smaller table. Re-situated, we watched the woman -- who we learned was the owner, cook, sole server, hostess and cashier -- play an elaborate life-sized game of Tetris throughout the evening. As guests entered in groups of two, four or more, she shuffled tables and chairs, directed already seated patrons to new tables, even squeezed a larger group together to pull one of their tables away. No one waited long at the door; the continuous shuffling and wedging-in and realigning got everyone a table, although a few frowns and eye rolls clouded an otherwise convivial atmosphere.
With just the two of us, selecting from the menu proved a little tricky. Ethiopian food is the ultimate in shared dining -- small plates without the plates, subtly different mounds of stewed and sauteed vegetables and meats that inspire comparisons and conversation.
We wanted a good variety, but didn't want to end up with too much food; a combination vegetable plate plus one meat selection seemed to be a reasonable amount. The combination plate -- with six different vegetable preparations -- gave us plenty to talk about, while our selection of kitfo served raw elicited a look somewhere between "good for you" and "you'd better not complain later" from the matron of the house. A couple of Ethiopian stouts rounded out the order.
Queen of Sheba's kitfo -- lean beef minced to almost a paste and mixed with clarified butter and spices -- has a back-of-the-throat heat and luscious texture that highlights the subtle beef flavor without ever approaching bloodiness. Although the kitchen also offers the dish medium-rare, the raw version seems perfect for scooping with pieces of tangy injera (spelled enjera on the menu here) -- the spongy, sourdough pancake-style bread that serves as an edible spoon in an otherwise cutlery-free restaurant.
The vegetable platter came with two lentil preparations and two kinds of stewed split peas. My favorite was the brick-hued miser wott (red lentils) with a touch of cinnamon and a punch of heat, but the atar wott -- garlicky yellow split peas -- also stood out. Slow-cooked collards and yatakelt wott (potatoes, carrots and cabbage) rounded out the platter.
It was a leisurely dinner, paced by the choreography of one woman doing the work of an entire brigade. There was one other cook in the kitchen, but otherwise the atmosphere took on the personality of its proprietor: a little harried but never rushed, spread a little thin but not to the point of frustration, a smile and a gleam in the eye even as she dealt with the confusion of a group of first-time diners. (A hint: Speak up if you want your meats and veggies on separate platters or if you're averse to diving into the same food as your companions.)
Ethiopian food seems built for a contemplative and relaxed experience. Variations on sauces that whisper with cardamom, cloves, garlic and other unfamiliar but evocative flavors sit alongside searingly hot bites to be tempered with cold lentils or a salad of tomatoes and shreds of injera. A shared platter reveals its personality in the course of an evening. The elements line up to be discovered and appreciated little by little, just like a new friend, just like Colfax itself.
For more from our tour of Denver's cultural, regional and international restaurant scene, check out our entire Ethniche archive.
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