Arada Ethiopian offers hands-on veggie food

Sitting down for an Ethiopian meal is a communal experience, and it's no wonder why Arada, 750 Santa Fe Drive, is one of the most popular Ethiopian restaurants in the city. Even after peak hours on Saturday night, the exposed-brick dining room was three-quarters full of tables -- mostly families -- talking, laughing and scooping up the delicious spiced stews with slightly sour injera, all beautifully displayed on white tablecloths embroidered with fanciful, colorful designs. And best of all: Arada's Vegetarian Combination meal, $29.95 for two people (pictured above), offers up all of Arada's vegetarian dishes on one giant plate. The four-piece vegetable sambusa is a great starter; these flaky dumplings comprise lentils and various other veggies and spices wrapped in pastry dough.

But the main event is obviously the the combination platter; it comes with yater alitcha (yellow split peas), yatakilt alitcha (potatoes, carrots and cabbage), yemiser wot (red lentils), greens, shiro wot (imported chick peas) and green beans. After placing the injera in the middle of the table, the server dished out each entree individually, naming and describing the items as he arranged them on the injera. He even disclosed which dishes were his favorite, a lovely bonus, and came back to debrief the table on what we thought were the tastiest items; he had some fantastic recommendations for carnivores, too.

There's also a tomato salad and hummus on the menu for appetizers, and if you already know which entrees you like best, you can order single or double portions of any of the dishes on the combination platter.

The relaxed atmosphere, wide selection of vegetarian and meat-centric dishes, and the friendly competence of the waitstaff are all indications as to why Arada has done so well in this city -- and will continue to bring people through the doors to lose themselves in hand-scooped Ethiopian food for an hour or two.

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