Elissa and I studied the front of our menus for a moment, then looked up at the same time.
"Uh, FEED each other?" she giggled. According to the history of Ethiopian food printed there, the proper way to enjoy a feast in that country is by linking arms and lovingly placing bites of food in each other's mouths.
I had a feeling we'd be skipping that tradition. Elissa and I are close, but we're not that close.
The two of us share a penchant for ethnic food, particularly Ethiopian, and we've spent many evenings in dining rooms around town using strips of injera to scoop up hearty stews of curried lentils and spice-rubbed chicken and braised lamb, then shoving everything messily into our faces — our own faces — until we're so full we can no longer breathe.
Well, I eat the lamb and chicken. Elissa is a lifelong vegetarian who only recently began to eat meat, and then just pork. Since pig products aren't on the menu for a cuisine based in a Muslim country, she sticks to the lentils, chickpeas and other savory vegetables cooked in pungent sauces. Which is why she likes Ethiopian food so much: There's plenty of variety for someone who prefers to forgo animal products.
My friend has tried just about every Ethiopian place in the area, and she knows which kitchen uses more wheat flour in its injera and which place has the best red lentils. When she moved to Stapleton, Queen of Sheba was one of the first spots she found, and it's become one of her go-to restaurants. She's helped neighborhood kids with their homework at these tables, joked around with friends of the owner, Zewditu (Zodi) Aboye.
Aboye came to this country in the late '70s after leaving Ethiopia to travel the world, learning to cook along the way. She opened her own place in 1993, in a dilapidated building on Colfax that also houses a hair salon and beauty-supply store, filling the space with tapestries, wooden carvings, beads hanging from the doorways and maps of her home country, putting paper towels rather than napkins on the mismatched tables. She didn't have any restaurant background, but that didn't faze her. As her daughter puts it, "Some people just have a gift for cooking, you know?"
Today, accolades — both printed press clippings and handwritten notes from diners — adorn the entrance to the kitchen. Aboye's two children, now grown, run the front of the house, while she tends to the bubbling pots partially visible through an open doorway in the dining room. Although that room looks well used, it also seems well loved. Groups of diners, mostly twenty- and thirty-somethings, chat as they sip light Harar Ethiopian beers and share platters of food. Good conversation partners are key, because the atmosphere at Queen of Sheba is very conducive to a lingering dinner. In fact, no other kind of dinner is possible here. Every dish is made to order, and even when you're the only person in the restaurant, it can take 45 minutes to get your meal (which is also how long you'll have to wait if you decide to carry out). To stave off hanger (hunger + anger) pains, I usually order a round of timatim fitfit, a fresh blend of juicy diced tomatoes, spicy jalapenos and torn strips of injera that's a refreshing start to a meal — and comes fast.
That's also one of the appetizers you can get with Queen of Sheba's dinner for two, an easy — and economical — way to sample many of the kitchen's best offerings. The first time I ordered it, the meal began with fo-ol medemas, or cooked fava beans, firm and earthy, lightly spiced and mixed with tart feta and crisp parsley. I prefer this dish cool, or at least at room temperature, but Aboye will also serve it warm. Many minutes later, the feast arrived: a ceramic platter heaped with stews in shades of rust and gold and brown, hemmed in by a barricade of folded injera (Queen of Sheba's is springy, sour and slightly darker than most). The offerings included yebeg wott, tender chunks of lamb inundated by the smoky spice of berbere, simmering in thick liquid; blackened legs of moist chicken, the meat so tender it was sagging from the bone; tibs, cubes of beef rubbed with cumin and grilled like shish kabobs; and two vegetarian offerings: yatakelt wott, a lighter dish of boiled carrots, potatoes and cabbage; and the miser wott, a nourishing stew of red lentils. We'd asked for the lentils to be made spicy, and Aboye had obliged.
The second time I ordered Queen of Sheba's dinner for two, I discovered that Aboye does not forget a face, because she custom-made the meal to what she remembered of my tastes. Because I'd ordered the timatim fitfit before, she sent that out as my appetizer, laughing quietly as her son carried the unexpected plate to my table. She also switched up the main dishes, suggesting we try things we hadn't had before. So shero wott, chickpeas in a fiery berbere sauce, replaced the lentils. Lamb tibs, kabob mixed with onions and racy jalapeños, came instead of the beef. And everything was spicier, supplemented with diced raw jalapeños or more cumin.
Although I love the belly-filling feeling of Queen of Sheba's meat stews, when I ate there with Elissa, we went with the vegetarian sampler. There was more cabbage and potatoes, more spicy red lentils and more smoky chickpeas, as well as atar wott — yellow split peas in a mild, savory stew — and green split peas, earthier and more satisfying. The most surprising dish was a pile of collard greens, spiced up with garlic and berbere, slick without seeming slimy. I enjoyed the way the different legumes played against each other, the distinctions both subtle and striking. And I didn't miss the meat at all.
Obliged to share, eating with my hands and smearing stew across my face, I made some discoveries I might not have found on my own. And Aboye played to that, slipping in new creations and twists, beckoning me deeper into her culinary experiments.
A good friend plays to this and pushes you, too. We may not have wanted to feed each other from a tender loving hand, but Elissa used Ethiopian food to push me to the realization that some vegetarian dishes are better than their meaty counterparts. And someday, I hope to use Queen of Sheba to get her to try chicken, beef and lamb.