Friday, March 21, was World Poetry Day, and on a damp day with big, chunky clouds hovering low over Boulder County, I found myself sipping ginger tea and reading poetry queued up by Facebook friends on my iPhone while waiting for an order of kitfo ba aib inside the new Lafayette location of an old Ethiopian favorite, Ras Kassa's.
Ras Kassa's is nearly thirty years old and is now on its fourth location under chef/owner Tsehay Hailu, who opened the first incarnation in the late 1980s, only to have the building torn down and the land converted to Boulder County open space. Her second location, at 3111 30th Street in Boulder, also met the wrecking ball, falling victim to the development of a new Google corporate campus. Since leaving that location in 2015, Hailu has served her cooking out of a takeout-only kitchen at the Rodeway Inn & Suites Boulder Broker. But sharing and communal dining are such a big part of an Ethiopian meal that getting something to go from Ras Kassa's never felt quite as comforting and soul-nourishing as the same food at the old sit-down location.
So it was great to hear that Hailu had found a new restaurant spot, which reopened earlier this month at 802 South Public Road in Lafayette, close enough to Boulder for longtime Ras Kassa's devotees to find their way through the door. Downtown Lafayette is just a little weird, with a trailer park right next to the newish retail strip where Ras Kassa's is located. Across the street, there's an old-timey barbershop and a drive-thru liquor store.
Inside, the new place feels a little sparse once you get past the foyer decorated with Ethiopian furnishings and art, but the aromas wafting from the kitchen — garlic, cardamom, chiles — let you know exactly where you are.
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Kitfo ba aib is a special version of standard kitfo — spicy chopped or ground beef traditionally served raw — that comes with collard greens and soft, seasoned cheese, which Hailu makes herself. The beef is drizzled with herbed clarified butter and dosed with a spicy chile powder called mitmita. Rolls of spongy injera bread serve as a scoop for pinching up bites of cheese and meat together; the dish also comes with lentils and a grated carrot salad.
Hailu delivered the meal to my table on a metal tray lined with more injera and asked me if I knew how to eat it. I must have hesitated for just a moment too long, because she picked up a piece of injera from my tray, scooped up some cheese and kitfo — and then popped the bite into my mouth before I had time to think. The gesture is a form of welcome and respect at Ethiopian meals, and after I had a moment to consider it, I felt honored. It's not every day that a chef will cook you a meal and then feed you the first bite with her own hand.
I finished the rest of my kitfo slowly and deliberately, contemplating the complex blend of spices in the mitmita, the bright-orange hue staining the injera as it mingled with the liquid butter. The whole lunch felt as resonant and meaningful as the lines of poetry shared by my friends across miles and hours. Welcome back, Ras Kassa's.