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When we arrive at Addisaba, the new Ethiopian restaurant tucked behind Sharpstown Mall, I notice that most of the cars in the parking lot are yellow taxis. Behind the forbidding mirrored glass doors of the restaurant, a dozen black men, whom I would guess to be cab drivers of Ethiopian ancestry, are seated at a large table in the main dining room watching the Los Angeles Lakers succumb to the Detroit Pistons on a big-screen television.
The nationality of the restaurant is nebulous at first glance. The woodwork on the divider between the dining rooms is Asian-looking, but that's probably because this African restaurant is housed in a strip-mall space that used to contain a Chinese eatery.
There's a green haze inside the place, a weird glow that seems to be coming off the pea-soup-colored walls in the low light. It gives the restaurant an air of alien intrigue. You expect to see foreign correspondents at the bar, huddled with their local informants. My dining companions and I are seated in a smaller, more formal dining room away from the television. We order an assortment of meats and vegetables. One of our gang has never had Ethiopian food before. Like most first-timers, she finds the presentation very exotic.
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Ethiopian food is eaten without utensils. It's brought to the table on a plate covered with injera, a sour, spongy flatbread. The vegetable and meat dishes of this cuisine are designed with the bread in mind. They're all well chopped, so there's nothing to cut. Most have the consistency of a sticky stew, so they're easy to scoop up.
To eat your dinner, you tear off a piece of bread, wrap it around a morsel and pop it in your mouth. You can request the food be served on individual plates or on one big platter. We have opted for the communal style, although here at Addisaba, they pile the vegetables up on the platter but serve the meats in bowls on the side so you can spoon them onto the platter yourself. Maybe this is so vegetarians won't get their injera contaminated with meat juice.
If you like your vegetables spicy, you'll love the vegetarian offerings at Addisaba. We've ordered gomen, chopped collard greens cooked with onions and garlic; tikel gomen, a mélange of cabbage, potatoes, caramelized onions, garlic and jalapeños, sautéed in a spice blend that turns the vegetables bright yellow; and kik wet, a paste of yellow split peas, onions, peppers and garlic that tastes like refried peas in curry sauce.
While we start on the veggies, the waitress brings a bowl of what looks like browned hamburger meat to the table. I ask her to take the bowl back to the kitchen. "We want our kifto raw, not cooked," I tell her, to the shock of my tablemates.
Kifto is the Ethiopian steak tartare. It's beef minced with garlic and spices. Cooked, it tastes like taco filling. And anyway, what's the point of eating steak tartare that's been cooked?
There's still a lot of skepticism about the wisdom of eating raw beef, what with the frequent hamburger recalls and all. Nevertheless, when the bowl of bright red minced meat comes back, everyone at the table takes a tentative nibble. And their fears are quickly overruled by their appetites. This stuff is outrageous. It's a bolder-flavored version of the usual steak tartare, seasoned heavily with berbere. I can't stop eating it.
In fact, nearly all of the food we're eating is seasoned with berbere, which is the North African equivalent of chile powder. Even the black pepper you would expect to find in the restaurant's shakers has been replaced with the spice mix, which combines a whole lot of ground red pepper with trace amounts of ginger, cardamom, coriander, fenugreek, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, allspice, salt and black pepper.
The other highly seasoned meat dishes we sample include a curry called yes'ga alicha, made with beef chunks, onions and potatoes; and yebeg tibs, a combination of lamb, onions, tomatoes and green peppers. Both of these meat stews are interesting enough, but neither really sings.
The yedoro wot, which is considered the national dish of Ethiopia, on the other hand, breaks into an operatic aria. Addisaba's version of this stew of chicken and hard-boiled egg comes in a dark brown sauce that looks a little like mole poblano. The sauce is made with a red pepper paste that contains pureed onions and ginger, and, like mole poblano, it's slightly sweet and very spicy. As dinner ends, we all hover over the bowl, injera poised, competing to mop up the last of the sauce.
"The food looks so strange," our first-timer remarks. "But there wasn't a single thing I didn't like."
I recently got a ride home from the airport in a cab driven by a guy from Ethiopia. I asked him if there was much difference between the fare at Houston Ethiopian restaurants like Addisaba and the food in his home country. He said most of it is similar, although the injera in Ethiopia has a stronger flavor. Injera is made with an ancient grain called tiff, which is fermented to form a sourdough. Exceptionally nutritious, the tiny grain has gained a following in American health food stores. It has also become expensive. The cab driver suspects that American Ethiopian restaurants are adding other flours to make a "white bread" version of injera.
Maybe that's all for the better, because the first time I visited Addisaba, my dining companion remarked on how sour the flexible flatbread tasted. The two of us split a vegetable combination plate and a meat combination plate on that visit. Since we were sharing, we asked for the two entrée choices to be served all lumped together on one injera-covered platter.
Ordering the combo plates is the easiest way for two diners to get a broad sampling of Ethiopian food in just one visit. The vegetable combo features your choice of five dishes for eight bucks, while the meat combo gives you a choice of three from a short list for a dollar more. The portions are small, but there are a lot of them. And luckily the yedoro wot is among the meats offered.
This cuisine isn't for people on the Atkins diet, since it entails eating an awful lot of bread. In fact, you soon learn that it's better to scoop up large amounts of food with every little piece of injera to cut down on your total bread consumption.
Not wanting to eat any more bread, I nearly skipped the iceberg-and-tomato salad. But when I wrapped a piece in injera and took a bite, I had a hallucinatory pepper rush. Puzzled, I dug around in the salad and realized that what I had thought were green peppers were actually big slices of fresh jalapeño with the seeds still attached. Funny that the most boring-looking thing on the plate proved to be the most incendiary.
When I asked the cab driver which Houston Ethiopian restaurant he liked most, he chose Blue Nile on Richmond. Blue Nile is certainly doing a better job of catering to a mainstream American audience, but in truth, the kifto and yedoro wot at Addisaba are probably a little bit better. And it's a much better place to rendezvous with your secret sources.
Addisaba's location is a little tricky, though. You can find it by driving north on Fondren a few streets past Bellaire. Or you can call a cab.