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.
Driving to Aurora to eat Ethiopian cuisine seemed a little counterintuitive, at least when my planned route -- straight east on Colfax Avenue before heading south on Havana -- took me past the majority of Denver's favorites along Colfax. But after visiting Queen of Sheba -- one of the city's oldest and most popular Ethiopian restaurants -- last week, I wanted to give a new place a shot. Eatopia, which opened less than a year ago, maintains a website and online menu with specialties and descriptions that read as unique and tantalizing enough to justify the extra miles on the odometer. So I picked up my friend Greg, and some thirty minutes later we pulled into an empty parking lot in an empty strip mall on a quiet street just off the otherwise bustling intersection of Havana and Mississippi.
I hoped that the Sprouts Market across the street was a good sign for the neighborhood, which must have passed some sort of demographic study to land a branch of the health-centric grocery chain. But despite clear signs of commerce all around, this shoppette on the north side of Alameda hadn't quite caught on with either tenants or customers.
Eatopia's neighbors included a barber shop and a post office and little else, although it was hard to tell which businesses were open, because most of the signs had yet to be added to the new stucco facade. The interior didn't hold much more promise; we were the lone customers in a sparsely decorated dining room, with not an employee to be seen.
Someone in the kitchen saw us, though, and came out with menus and a smile. She seemed surprised that anyone was actually coming in for dinner, but motioned us to a table and soon brought us waters (complete with bendy straws). The menu item that beckoned me from across town was the "special" kitfo -- special because the finely minced beef came with ayeb cheese and the stewed collard green dish called gomen. We ordered it raw, as recommended on the menu (found under "enchanting meat edibles"), which brought another smile to the server's face. She told us, maybe to soothe any trepidation, that the steak was of the highest quality and very fresh.
First, though, we started with a lamb soup called begue kikil, which the sole cook in the kitchen was kind enough to split into three bowls for us. The yellow-green soup was thin but powerfully spiced, its turmeric and garlic top notes giving way to a deep meatiness from the lamb bones and a curry-like undercurrent of additional spices. Although the dining room was a little warm, we polished off every drop of the soup and mopped the bowls with rolls of tangy injera bread, which was firm and springy and dusty-rose colored from the teff flour. Greg's order of zilzil tibs -- tibs indicating grilled or sauteed meat -- came shortly after, along with another mound of injera. Although the beef in the zilzil was chewy by Western standards, it was packed with flavor from the bubbling awaze sauce, a deep blackish concoction packed with miso-like umami and low-voltage berbere spice. Keep reading for more on Eatopia. Before we dug into the kitfo, the server returned with a small bowl of spice powder that she told us was mitmita fresh off the plane. Her mother had brought it straight from Ethiopia after grinding it by hand. I could smell the mixture as she set it at our table -- reminiscent of chili powder and sparkling with coarse salt -- even before I picked up the spoon. She said we could add it to our kitfo if we needed some extra heat. And that kitfo, so smooth and unctuous from a generous dose of the spiced clarified butter called niter kibbeh and already buzzing with mitmita, was a revelation that raw beef could taste so pure and simple and still retain its essential meatiness beneath the melange of bittersweet butter and the complex burn of the spice mix. The mild ayeb, like a dry and fine-grained cottage cheese, and the pureed collards, smooth-textured like thick pesto, cooled the heat and offset the complexity with their simple flavors. The various lentil and vegetable stews set in little hillocks on another expanse of injera provided a sampling of slow-cooked and lovingly spiced goodness, from soft green beans and carrots to berbere-laced miser wot (red lentils) that featured the cinnamon and allspice more than the heat of the traditional spice blend. We finished our meal with strong, bitter cups of Ethiopian espresso, but even after the coffee, the flavors of the mitmita and berbere continued to dance on my tongue.
I love the repetitive murmur of the names of Ethiopian foods: zilzil, mitmita, berbere, fitfit. I love the powerful seasoning and flavor combinations of the sauces and stews that mimic the colors of the Ethiopian landscape: earthy reds, deep greens, muddy yellows. It's a food that tastes of history and of generosity, a food to be shared with cheer and companionship. Eatopia may not be much to look at yet, but the restaurant's sincerity and devotion to sharing good food are evident in every bite. The breakfast menu tantalizes with other sibilant syllables (kinche and chechebsa offer savory takes on oatmeal and bread pudding), so I have a feeling I'll be making the drive again soon -- if not for dinner, then for a morning bowl of fava-bean stew with more of that jolting coffee.
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For more from our tour of Denver's cultural, regional and international restaurant scene, check out our entire Ethniche archive.