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"Exotic" Ethiopian

You eat it with your fingers, yes. But the vibrant cuisine at Sheba Cafe isn't so unfamiliar.

Made with fava beans mashed into a paste that resembles refried beans, foul at Sheba is decidedly different from its Levantine sister dish, as it's served with fresh tomatoes, jalapeños, minced onions, crumbled cheese that tastes like queso fresco and a sprinkling of the other main Ethiopian spice besides berbere: mitmita, a mixture of cardamom and cloves that's kicked up several notches by the addition of serrano peppers. Depending on how spicy or sharp you want your foul, you can mix the condiments directly into the fava beans and then scoop the entire concoction up with a piece of injera bread.

Also on the more familiar side of the spectrum was the enqulal fir-fir, a very simple dish of scrambled eggs with tomato and onion. It was my least favorite item at breakfast, but my boyfriend inhaled it.

The dusky, spicy beef chunks and sour bread in the kita fir-fir that I devoured was the only thing my boyfriend disliked. "It's like migas!" I tried to persuade him "See? They use old pieces of torn-up injera from the day before and mix them up with leftover wot." At least, that's how Sheba Cafe does it; this isn't the strictly textbook recipe for the stuff. Discussion of cross-cultural cooking concepts didn't lead to enlightenment that day, but I didn't care; it was more for me to enjoy.

For breakfast, try foul, kinche and fiery Ethiopian coffee.
Troy Fields
For breakfast, try foul, kinche and fiery Ethiopian coffee.

Location Info

Map

Sheba Cafe

6251 Bissonnet
Houston, TX 77081

Category: Restaurant > Ethiopian

Region: Outer Loop - SW

Details

Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

Kitfo: $11.99

Yedoro wat: $10.99

Vegetable combination: $10.99

Sambusa: $1.00

Sheba foul: $5.99

Kita fir-fir: $7.99

Enqulal fir-fir: $5.99

Kinche: $4.99

Sheba Cafe

6251 Bissonnet, 713-272-7770.

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At the end of our breakfast feast, we faced each other across the table, admissions heavy on our lips. "I liked it," my boyfriend started. "I wasn't sure about it at first, but I really liked it."

"And I should probably stop tricking you into eating at 'exotic' restaurants."

"It's okay," he smiled. "How else would you get me to eat anywhere?"

_____________________

At dinner a few nights later, I had taken the liberty of ordering for my dining companions who were joining me. As with Blue Nile, the food at Sheba Cafe takes longer than normal to arrive at your table as it's all cooked fresh by the two women who run the place.

The always-smiling Nunush works the front of the house while her mother, who doesn't appear to speak a word of English, works the kitchen. They're from Addis Ababa originally and have brought a broader selection of Ethiopian food to their restaurant than most Houstonians may be accustomed to. Sambusas, stuffed pastries more popularly known as samosas in India that are traditionally seen only during the holidays, are even available here on a daily basis.

My two friends arrived at nearly the same time as the food did: one who was more or less an Ethiopian neophyte and one who'd grown up eating the cuisine. I'd ordered some standards to test out on the group: kitfo, doro wot (on the menu here as "yedoro wat") and a vegetable combination platter.

"Is that an egg?" asked the neophyte, pointing to the dark red bowl of doro wot. "And a chicken leg?" I nodded yes. "Score," was her excited response.

Doro wot is traditionally served with these two items, indicative of the chicken that's the main ingredient in the wot — or stew — and it's no different at Sheba. We'd been given individual plates instead a communal platter to eat off, so my dining companions began spooning the lush stew out of its bowl. The doro wot was surprisingly mild, making my previous warning to watch the heat pointless now. But what it lacked in punch, it made up for in complexity: I could taste the sharp bite of ginger in the thick stew, the pungent garlic and the signature smoky-sweetness of fenugreek, a spice that I wish was used more often in Western cooking. Without fenugreek, doro wot would just be another curry; with it, it becomes an iconic dish that blends Indian, African and Middle Eastern cuisines into one swarthy mess of a masterpiece.

My dining companions were going nuts over it, nearly licking the bowl dry. Less popular was the kitfo — maligned as it always tends to be, mostly because of the fact that it's a rather unappetizing-looking bowl of raw meat. But if you're a fan of things like carpaccio and sashimi, kitfo isn't exactly a giant leap forward. Instead of highly spiced accompaniments like mustard sauce or wasabi, kitfo — raw minced beef tenderloin — is sprinkled with mitmita and served alongside a refreshing bowl of crumbled Ethiopian cheese that's a far milder, far less salty version of feta. It was miles better than any other kitfo I've had in the past, including the version offered at my old sweetheart, Blue Nile.

The vegetable combination platter held something for everyone, however: sautéed collard greens, lentils cooked down with ginger and garlic, saffron-colored peas with green peppers, green beans stewed with tomatoes, pureed split peas and even a nicely peppery salad in the middle. We ate it all, bellies full and broad smiles on all of our faces.

In my experience, anyone can learn to love Ethiopian food. And Sheba Cafe is an excellent place to start. Even at breakfast.

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