The Africana Cafe Serves Ethiopian Breakfast on East Colfax

Americans are good at breakfast — at least when it comes to the more-is-better school of cooking: eggs, pork products, pancakes, waffles, portable sandwiches, hot-and-cold cereals, sugary pastries, toast with peanut butter and jelly. For all that variety, though, American breakfast doesn’t go much beyond filling, fueling and fairly bland. But breakfast happens around the world, wherever people wake up hungry and need a morning boost (and have the wherewithal to feed themselves), so why aren’t there more breakfast joints in Denver serving food from other countries and other cultures?

Some Mexican eateries have figured out how to make a few extra bucks by opening early and serving burritos and huevos rancheros; French cafes offer coffee and croissants for the sophisticated set (and let’s not forget creations like French toast and omelets). But the sample set here is extraordinarily small compared to the wide variety of international cuisine available later in the day.

There are, however, at least a couple of Ethiopian restaurants serving breakfast menus that differ from what you’ll find on lunch and dinner slates. The Africana Cafe, 5091 East Colfax Avenue, is one such place. The cafe is built into an odd, wedge-shaped building that may have at one time housed a jazz club (judging by the exterior wall murals) and now also includes a recording studio downstairs and a soul-food restaurant (that may or may not be open) on the east side. The garlic-heavy perfume of Ethiopian cooking wafts out onto the sidewalk, letting you know that something’s happening inside, even if breakfast isn’t exactly the restaurant’s busiest meal.

Ethiopian cuisine is heavy on meatless dishes, and breakfast is no exception. Dried beans, peas and lentils are the staples, with bread — either crusty baguettes or spongy injera — as a handy side for mopping up sauces. Also present are coffee, eggs and the powerful spice blends that give Ethiopian cooking its distinct heat and complexity.
At the Africana Cafe, you can order a complete coffee ceremony for two for just $6; it features raw coffee beans that are roasted, ground and steeped while you watch for a unique taste and presentation. If you’re flying solo (or you’re not ready for pageantry at 9 a.m., when the restaurant opens), espresso drinks are also available. Breakfast options are limited to four entrees and an egg sandwich, but servings are filling, and the ingredients will transport you far from Colfax’s Greek and American diner standards.

Ful is a stewed fava-bean dish found throughout northern and eastern Africa, but various countries have their own styles. In Egypt, it’s called ful mudammas and topped with parsley, tahini and lemon juice, among other ingredients. As it’s prepared at the Africana Cafe, ful is distinctly Ethiopian, owing mainly to a heaping spoonful of dry berbere spice gracing the bowl with its fiery red hue.

The fava beans are not the broad, oversized variety found in Mediterranean cuisine, but are instead about the size of kidney beans; they’re cooked long and slow to form a porridge-like consistency. A few beans remain intact, presenting their distinct black stripe on one side. A couple of random chickpeas can also be spotted. A healthy drizzle of olive oil comes next, topped with a shower of diced tomato, jalapeño and onion that could easily be mistaken for pico de gallo.

The tidy mound of berbere spice is the real star, adding the rising heat of dried red chiles and a complex mélange of other seasonings ranging from familiar garlic, ginger and basil to the unfamiliar voices of fenugreek, nigella (black cumin) and others native to Ethiopia. You can also top the ful with a hard-boiled egg or chicken (or both) for a minimal up-charge, but it’s a complete meal without the added proteins, as two toasted whole-wheat baguettes accompany the $7 dish. On the scale of spicy breakfasts, the cafe’s ful registers at about the same level as a plate of eggs bathed in Colorado-style green chile.

Other breakfast options at the Africana include shiro fitfit, a split-pea stew served with injera bread; chechebsa, torn bread coated in a spicy mixture of butter and berbere; and scrambled eggs pelted with the same mixture of diced veggies as the ful, which can also be ordered in sandwich form.

Just down the street at 5501 East Colfax, Axum Restaurant served breakfast daily at one time, but now offers a weekend brunch buffet where you can sample a range of preparations. I was more interested in making my own Ethiopian breakfast, though, so I stopped in at the Merkato Market (7227 East Colfax, right next to another Ethiopian eatery, Queen of Sheba) for a few ingredients. The shop is a little cluttered, but there are bags of fresh, dark (indicating teff flour instead of standard wheat flour) injera and other bags of dried injera (like Ethiopian tortilla chips) in the front, an aisle with all manner of dried legumes, and a section in the back with bulk bins of spices.
The clerk helped me select some berbere spice and another blend called mitmita (not for my ful), which packs even more heat, and I wandered through the dry-goods aisle until I found a bag of fava beans. The other ingredients I’d need — onion, jalapeño, tomato, olive oil, bread and eggs — I could find either at Sprouts or in my own kitchen. Cooking the fava beans was easy since I wasn’t too worried about overcooking them; exploded beans seem to be perfectly okay in ful. I picked through the beans, though (some of them were a little shriveled), and soaked the entire one-pound bag overnight before cooking them in my pressure cooker with a little salt, bay leaf, black pepper, cumin and half an onion. I highly recommend a pressure cooker for beans, as it cuts the cooking time down from a couple of hours to less than ten minutes. It also allows you to salt at the beginning of the process so that the beans come out properly seasoned (unlike traditionally cooked beans, which can become tough if salted too early).

When the beans were nearly ready, I poached a couple of eggs in simmering water. Most Ethiopian restaurants serve hard-boiled eggs, but I like my yolks runny. I also diced the other half of the onion, a whole tomato and four fat jalapeños and gave the mixture a squeeze of lime juice (my own addition to the world of ful recipes).
When the beans were cooled enough, I added a ladleful to a bowl, topped it with extra-virgin olive oil and the poached egg, and sprinkled the bowl with a handful of the diced veggies. Finally, a generous spoonful of berbere gave the bowl some serious Ethiopian color and aroma. A side of French bread, toasted in the oven to get a nice, crusty finish, brought the dish together just like the one I’d had at the Africana Cafe. The idea is to use the bread to scoop up the beans, mixing a little berbere in with each bite.

This might become a regular weekend breakfast, since you can make it quickly if you prepare the beans ahead of time and freeze them in single-serving Ziploc bags, which can then be reheated in a pan. The spices are ridiculously cheap at Merkato Market; heaping scoops of the two blends set me back only $4. For summer weekends, ful seems like a hearty, warming breakfast with enough spice to get you sweating — and therefore cool you off on hot, dry Colorado days.
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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation