Addis Ababa is 8,000 miles away, and yet I can get a taste of Ethiopian culture without traveling more than a mile from my house. That’s about how far it is to Taste of Ethiopia, a small bit of east Africa right in my own back yard.
Taste of Ethiopia is in a small strip mall in residential Pflugerville, in a space where several other eateries have tried to make a go of it. I was concerned when Woinee Mariam first opened her shop; I mean, if a simple coffee house can’t make a go of it in that location (and with Austin’s fanatic fondness for java of all sorts), what chance does an exotic cuisine like Ethiopia’s really have? Tucked away in a sleepy surburb like Pflugerville?
Woinee’s demonstrated what we’ve known all along: Hard work, outstanding food (regardless of culture) and great service can overcome an “average” location. Oh, there’s plenty of drive-by traffic in the area; Grand Avenue’s not a small thoroughfare. Still, unless you already knew about Ethiopian fare, you might simply drive right by.
Which, sadly, is the trap Paula Jo and I fell into. Even when Taste of Ethiopia was obviously making a go of it. (What was my first inkling of that? Watching about half the Yellow Cab drivers in Austin pull in for lunch, for starters.)
PJ and I went with a large group that tries out a new restaurant once a month. We found out about this group recently, through the workout place we frequent. (Yes, my muscles are now eternally sore.) There were about a dozen of us, and we all showed up about the time the late dinner seating begins at most restaurants. Taste of Ethiopia is small; cozy and intimate come to mind. We pushed together three tables, right in the middle, and we easily took up half the available indoor dining space. There were only 4-5 more tables inside, and a small buffet table area (closed for dinner, but ready to deploy for lunch). Fortunately, Woinee has about the same amount of dining space outside, and with Texas weather staying nice most evenings of the year, she has enough tables in play to pay the bills.
We were greeted by Mena and Milkias (“call me Mike”), two young servers who have Ethiopian roots. They took our drink orders and then began to “show us the ropes” on Ethiopian food.
Here are the basics: Meals are communal events, not merely a way to get some calories. Utensils are optional; you get to use the ones nature provided you with in the first place. (In a nod to Western sensibilities, you can ask for flatware. Just expect to get some odd looks from the other diners.) The first and most plentiful edible item you’ll experience is a flatbread, something like a mega-tortilla. But not at all like a tortilla! Called injera, it’s made from teff flour (a cousin of lovegrass, something like millet), and the dough is lightly fermented. (No, you won’t get drunk. Bear with me, and pay attention.) This bread is served at every meal, and in most respects constitutes the dinnerware. It’s also the base that other items are served on. And, you also get more; your own, individual pieces, in nice rolls about the size of a small enchilada. Once the communal injera is gone, the meal is over.
If you wonder why I’m comparing to Mexican food, well, that’s easy. That’s something most folks around here have some experience with, unlike Ethiopian dishes. Past that, there’s really little in common with our area’s most prevalent ethnic cuisine. On to the specific dishes we sampled…
The servers placed large, shallow baskets of woven reeds on each table. These baskets are very well made and intensely colorful: Red, green, blue and more. On these baskets a large sheet of injera was then placed. This would be the edible plate that everything else goes onto. Neat, huh? Almost no dishes to wash! Which makes up for the large amount of work that goes into making injera, by the way.
We ordered Tomato Salad and Minchet Abish as appetizers. The salad includes jalapeño slices, so it’s not exactly like others you may have tried. It was sure tasty! The Abish is worth the price of admission all by itself, though. Very finely minced beef in a deeply-red sauce that features berbere spice blend, it’s exotic and addictive at the same time. For many, the first bite might be a bit of a shock, as it’s middlin’ zesty; however, all the other great flavors come through and you quickly accept the heat and press on. Learning how to get a goodly scoop up on a piece of injera bread is the hardest part; after that, the stew does a magical disappearing act and you want more. (PJ got a small glob onto her shirt, and I was mesmerized, wondering if it was considered poor table manners in Ethiopia to simply lean over and lick it off. I managed to restrain myself, but it was a very close thing.)
Meat isn’t readily available in Ethiopia, so many of the dishes offered are vegetarian. It’s been my experience traveling that cultures that eat little meat really know how to prepare vegetables. After all, they’re not an afterthought, as many “side dishes” are in the States. They’re the feature, the first prize, and they’re wonderful. That said, we ordered several main dishes across the three tables of diners: Siga Wot, Doro Wot, Siga Tibbs, Tibbs Fitfit, Yemisir Wot, Ater Kik, Veggie Firfir, Shiro Wot, and a collection simply called The Sampler. I won’t try to describe each one; here’s some guidelines, though. “Wot” is stew. “Tibbs” is tips, or bits of meat. “Doro” is chicken. “Siga” is beef. “Yemisir” is lentils. That pretty much has it all, yes? You’re good?
Well, that doesn’t do the meal any justice at all. Some of these dishes are quite zesty-hot, using berbere or mitmita spice blends to pump up the heat. Others are mild, with creamy sauces. The profusion of flavors and textures nearly produces a riot on your tongue! Cardamom, cinnamon, garlic, ginger, chiles, black pepper, fenugreek and more combine to produce a world of aromas and tingles.
Doro Wot is the national dish of Ethiopia, and it’s amazingly good. Amazingly messy too, as the chicken legs aren’t cut up. They’re braised for several hours in the sauce, though, so it’s easy to break up the flesh. Still, plan on using plenty of injera and napkins to control the overspray. (A firehose bath later is optional, but recommended.)
I asked for a sample of the mitmita in a finger bowl, and Mike brought some along to the table. It’s basically chile powder from the Bird’s-Eye chile, combined with cardamom and salt. Garlic powder and ginger are also in there, sparingly. I took a big pinch and tasted it; all in the interests of science, of course, and so I could give Undergrounders a sense of what that mixture is like. The powder took a few seconds to become damp, and then POW! Heat and flavor. It was a little like the first time chugging neat whiskey, sneaked from dad’s liquor cabinet and consumed out behind the garage. (I’m speaking theoretically here; I’ve only heard about that.) If I hadn’t been prepared I could have exploded with a sneeze or a major coughing fit. I kept my cool, though, and after a bit I found it quite pleasing. Not pleasant; it’s too hot for that! But pleasing in an edgy, fiery way. I shared the sample around the table, and a few folks (the more adventurous) took a tiny bit. Everybody pronounced it “interesting.”
Good food and good socializing ended all too soon, and we finally gave in and let Woinee and her staff close up. I’m sure PJ and I will be back by regularly, if only to take away some Minchet Abish to eat at home. (I told you that stuff was addictive! PJ wanting more of something zesty-hot; that’s a miracle of the first water.) The more adventurous citizens of the Clan will be invited to go with us, when they visit, to learn about a new culture’s food. New to our area, that is; and welcome, very welcome…
Taste of Ethiopia, 1100 Grand Avenue Parkway, Pflugerville, TX 78660. Phone 512.251.4053. Moderately priced ethnic Ethiopian fare in an intimate setting, lunch and dinner, seven days a week. Vegetarian buffet (with one chicken dish, Doro Wot, on the line) weekdays during lunch. Gluten-free friendly, vegetarian friendly, kid friendly and thoroughly authentic. Reservations not required. Outside dining available. Takeout available; call ahead for faster service. Wave at Woinee if you stop by, and mention you heard about her fine food from the Chile Underground; I promise she won’t toss anything at you…
Heat It Up (With Ethiopian Fare)!
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