A recent USA Today article guestimated that 200,000 Ethiopian émigrés live in the Washington, D.C. area, making it the largest Ethiopian community in the world, outside of Africa. And it sometimes feels like one out of every 10 of those folks operates a restaurant. Ethiopian food has become a defining local cuisine, much as BBQ is in Memphis or salmon dishes are in Seattle.
For those who've never tried it, it's a true culinary adventure. Long-simmering stews of lamb or chicken, beef tartars (called keftas) and grilled beef dishes (tibs) are dusted with a slow-burning spice mix called berbere, giving many dishes an eye-opening whallop. Onion, ginger and cinnamon, important supporting characters, lend sweetness and depth of flavor. And because the Orthodox Ethiopian religious calendar requires numerous days be set aside for meat-free fasts, lentils, collard greens, potatoes and other vegetables are the focus of a number of dishes, making this an excellent cuisine for vegetarians.
Most fun of all, Ethiopian cuisine banishes the fork. Instead, your dishes are served on a pizza-sized round of injera, a winningly sour, spongy bread, that diners use to scoop up their meals. Yup, you get to eat with your hands.
And did I mention that it's near impossible to overspend at an Ethiopian restaurant? Platters are meant to be shared and usually come to just about $7-$11 per person.
Below are my picks for D.C..'s best:
Dukem Restaurant (114Â?118 U St. at 12th Street NW; tel. 202/667-8735; www.dukemrestaurant.com; daily 11am-2am; Metro: U Street-African American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo). Large and so popular it's spawned an off-shoot deli next door and a second restaurant in Baltimore, Dukem is the Ethiopian equivalent of a dinner theater. Every night but Tuesday, singers and dancers take to the center of the restaurant in traditional costumes to put on a lively show; weekday afternoons, diners can stop by for a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. It's much less hokey than it sounds, and since the cost of dining there during a show is just one measly dollar more than usual, this may qualify as one of the best values in DC. And the food is topnotch, especially the kifto ($10), steak tartar that's kicked up a notch with the addition of cardamom, an Ethiopian cheese, and a blend of tongue-searing spices.
Etete (U Street Corridor, 1942 9th St. NW at U Street; tel. 202/232-7600; www.eteterestaurant.com; Metro: U Street-African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo) This one looks a like a hip American café and the tastes on the platter are a tad westernized: breads a bit thinner than you'll find at other Ethiopian restaurants, which might be good for those who find the texture off-putting. And that's just the beginning of the innovations; the doro wat stew is made with a dash of cognac and the spicy dishes aren't quite as fiery as expected. Purists sniff that the food here is a bit too westernized, but well, the westerners sure do like it. If you're not sure you'll enjoy Ethiopian fare, a meal here is a good way to ease yourself into the cuisine.
Queen Makeda (1917 9th St. NW right off U St; tel. 202/232-5665; daily 11am-1am; Metro: U Street-African American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo). Vegetarians are well catered to at this two-story eatery, right across the street from Etete. In particular, there's a dish here they described to me as being "chick beans" that was so hearty it tasted like a meat stew (but wasn't). Unlike the first two restaurants patrons here are mostly from Africa, giving it a clubhouse vibe.
Lalibela Restaurant (1415 14th St. NW at P St.; tel. 202/265-5700; daily 9am-11pm; Metro: McPherson Square). I was the only woman customer in the place the first time I lunched at Lalibela. Wondering if women were welcome, I timidly asked the waitress if I could stay. She burst out laughing and explained that this was where all the Ethiopian taxi drivers eat (and none of them are female). And you know that old rule about popular truck stops having good eats? Well it works for taxi stops too. Sure the setting is diner like, but the food is perhaps the most authentic of any I've listed here, the spices spicier, the citrus notes more sour, the honeyed wine puckerishly sweet. Besides, it's never a problem catching a cab when you dine here.
Meskerem (2434 18th St NW; tel. 202/462-4100; Mon-Thurs 11am-midnight, Fri-Sat 11am-2am; Metro: Woodley Park and then a 10-minute walk). Adams Morgan's old stand-by, it's probably the handsomest of the restaurants with two airy floors. While the flavors of the food aren't quite as deep as at Lalibela or Dukem, I think you'll still quite enjoy the food here. Again, it's another good "starter" restaurant.
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This article is an excerpt from Pauline Frommer's Washington, D.C., 2nd Edition, available in our online bookstore now.
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