I hadn’t had Ethiopian food in at least 19 years. My first couple – and last – times were in Berkeley, at one or another of the ubiquitous Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurants that line Telegraph Ave. I’m conflating the two cuisines because, although they do share a common heritage, my experiences back then left me feeling that the food always pretty much tasted the same – between the food of the two countries, but also between dishes. This could have been because of my own palate deficiencies, or maybe those places just weren’t that good.
Café Ethiopia made a big culinary difference for me. This modest, home-spun, family run Ethiopian restaurant has been in the same location for at least 19 years. It’s a pleasant space, clean and cool, with tile floors and Ethiopian art and posters on the walls. There’s a cozy room in the back for bigger parties, too, and this is an excellent cuisine for sharing food with many.
Ethiopia’s most typical dish is also an eating utensil – injera. Injera is a spongy, sourdough form of bread, rather like a pancake-y flat bread, usually made of teff flour – teff being a tiny grass grain high in fiber and iron. Injera is used as a plate and as a fork – various stew-like dishes are served on a sheet of injera, and folded sheets of injera are provided on the side to scoop the food up – forks are optional here. I love the sour taste of injera, as it plays so well with the rich and sometimes spicy flavors of the cuisine. And eating with your hands is good for you! Or, at least, it’s good fun.
Some of the typical flavorings used in Ethopian cooking are berbere – a chili powder with spices, and niter kibbeh – a spiced, clarified butter. Unlike my previous experiences, I found each dish we had here deliciously distinct from each other, even while sharing similar spicing.
On our first visit, the BF tried the 2-meat, 1-veg combo. There are a variety of options to choose from, and to my absolute shock, one of the meats he chose was the lamb – Lamb Tsebhi Begee (Beg Wat) described as “tender lamb with bones, cooked with hot pepper and seasoning.” The BF does not like lamb, normally, but in the spirit of trying something not in his wheelhouse, he went for it. We both loved it. A Wat is a stew that can be made with a variety of meats and vegetables. An unusual bit of cooking trivia I learned: the stew starts out by cooking chopped onions in a dry pot with no fat, until most of the moisture has left them. Only then is fat added (niter kibbeh) and the onions are further sautéed until they almost melt, adding thickness to the stew.
All three of our meats came on one plate on a layer of injera.
The other meat the BF selected was Zigini, another Wat, but with beef this time, in a spicy sauce. Personally, I didn’t love his beef, especially in comparison to the lamb, although he liked it just fine. For his veg option, he got the split peas (Ater – yet another Wat!) pictured above. There are at least as many vegetarian options on the menu as there are meat dishes, so this is a good place for a mixed crowd.
For my meal, I had the Gored Gored (pictured above on the left), which is considered to be one of Ethiopia’s national dishes, and consists of chunks of medium rare beef seasoned with niter kibbeh. It was a buttery, super flavorful dish of meaty goodness, a bit spicy, and served with cooling yogurt. The beef had a wonderful springiness but was not too underdone for the BF’s taste (me, I could have eaten it raw.) Up to this point, that beef was my favorite dish.
For my side dish, I went with Azifa – lentils – a huge dish of them, spiked with jalapenos, spicy and intensely lemony – which came with a large portion of salad. If I was a vegetarian, this dish would make a lot of appearances at my table.
I had a glass of the famed Tej – a sweet, fermented honey wine, similar to mead. I usually don’t like sweet wines with food, but this had a nice balance between sweet and tang, and went perfectly with the food.
The BF had a St. George lager, brewed in Ethiopia.
On our second visit, I had yet another dish of undercooked beef, but this time I opted for the raw, and it was by far my favorite dish. Kitfo is raw minced beef, seasoned with hot spiced butter (which may cook it a little bit, if you’re leery of so much rawness), with top notes of perfume-y cardamom, and served with a wonderful cottage cheese – which is incredibly light, fresh and tangy, more like the Mexican queso fresco so abundant here in the Mission. It’s made in-house with buttermilk, and was a perfect contrast to the spicy beef. My Kitfo was mixed with Hamili, collared greens, as well, so I’d really already had my full complement of veggies, but my dish came with a serving of stewed carrots, potatoes and cabbage (Yatakelt Kilikili), which was rather bland to my taste. No matter, the beef’s extraordinary flavor more than made up for it.
The BF went with two chicken dishes this time, and they were as different as could be from each other. The first, Doro Wat, is one of the most well-known dishes in Ethiopian cooking. This version came with drumsticks in a wonderful , deep red sauce which we sopped up with plenty of injera. His other chicken dish, Doro Tibs, was merely described as sautéed chicken pieces with fresh tomatoes and onions. The chicken was tender, and flavored with mitmita, an Ethiopian chili powder, and the assertive flavor of the dish came from ginger, turmeric, and cardamom.
I found the service here very competent, if a bit distant. The servers we had both times were quiet women, friendly enough, but there is no hovering at your table, and questions about the food are answered briefly. Which is not a complaint; it’s just not what we’re used to in this neighborhood where each dish is described as if it merited its own table of contents.
I’m so happy that such a wonderfully diverse cuisine exists in our neighborhood, and can’t wait to go back to try many more of Café Ethiopia’s dishes.
878 Valencia St, San Francisco, CA 94110