Cafe Society

Lentil agreement: Some of our favorite Ethiopian vegetarian restaurants in Denver

Ninety-five percent of the time, I'd rather chew tin foil than a vegetarian entree. During a brief spell, I tried to convince myself otherwise; I eschewed meat for a full four months during my freshman year at a liberal arts school in Southern California — the kind of place where daily you'd have to ask yourself: Wait, is pot legal? I'm pretty sure that at the time, I also walked around saying I was going to move to South America and farm for eternity while teaching barefooted children the wisdom of Peter Singer; I might also have worn a lot of hemp and organic cotton.

Liberal arts is all about self-discovery.

Had I sampled Ethiopian legumes — you know, like lentils and chickpeas — during those four months, I might have been able to sustain that lifestyle choice for much longer. (Instead, it ended in a frenzied fit when, after I returned to good old Colorado for the summer, I downed enough bacon to lock up my animal-protein-deprived system for weeks.) Ethiopian legumes are magical, and red lentils are the only dish on the planet that might convince me to forgo meat permanently. Here's a sampler of what I've found in Denver.

Ethiopian Restaurant, 2816 East Colfax Avenue, is located in a dark building easily identified by the red, black, green and yellow flag of the originating country. This kitchen turns out my favorite red lentils in the city: spicier than at most other spots, and lighter, too. On a lentil combo, they're happily balanced by a smattering of mild, savory yellow split peas. Though my friend Elissa swears by the garlicky green lentils, my experience with them has left me wanting; they're too dry for my taste.

Habesha, 5707 East Colfax, offers more atmosphere than its counterparts, with a shiny bar, elaborate murals and occasional live music; it also attracts a livelier crowd. Too bad the red lentils suck: They're mashed into oblivion and dried out. The shero wott, on the other hand, is full of smoky chickpeas cooked to an ideal consistency, doused in enough berbere to make my sinuses burn. At this spot, I often sacrilegiously ask for a fork, because the injera is so dense it fills me up before I can properly stuff myself with the rest of the food on my plate.

Mesob, 1119 Syracuse Street, sits in an unassuming strip mall. It's a large, dark place with a sitting area replete with candles. I love the flavor of the red lentils here, which are heavy enough to stand as an entree. And that's how I'll order them next time, too, with plenty of spongy injera and a little extra spice — because the rest of the legumes I've tried in this spot are bland.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk