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The 10 Best Downtown Restaurants

More than tunnels and tourist traps.

Wat

Simply put, a wat (or wot) is a stew. It begins its life as red onions cooked down with berbere and/or niter kibbeh, a clarified butter infused with ginger, garlic and other spices (and itself also an essential Ethiopian ingredient). From there, the wat can become anything from a vegetable dish to a meat stew. Lentils, carrots, potatoes and cabbage — all highly common ingredients — are staples of the Ethiopian diet, and it's common to find them stewed separately or together and served on a large vegetarian platter.

Doro wat

Irma Galvan at her namesake restaurant.
Stephanie Meza
Irma Galvan at her namesake restaurant.
Venison carpaccio at Quattro.
Mai Pham
Venison carpaccio at Quattro.

Doro wat is my favorite type of wat, a chicken-based stew that's colored an intense shade of red from the berbere spice and stuffed full of dark-meat chicken and a whole boiled egg. Imagine a thick, spicy chicken chili and you have doro wat. Along with a simple vegetarian platter, this is the dish I use to lure people into becoming converts to Ethiopian cuisine.

Kitfo and gored gored

If you're a connoisseur of steak tartare, you need to meet the spicy Ethiopian version: kitfo. Like traditional tartare, kitfo is made with minced raw beef, although there's no raw egg mixed in. The minced beef is tossed with mitmita (a hotter version of berbere) and niter kibbeh, after which you gobble it up with sheets of injera. Gored gored is the same preparation, but the beef is diced into small cubes instead of minced.

Tibs

It seems as if nearly every culture has its own version of "fajitas," or marinated beef sautéed with vegetables. Tibs can be made with beef, but you'll also find it made with lamb. Although the meat-heavy dish is traditionally served on holidays and special occasions, you can find it on every Ethiopian menu in Houston.

Fit-fit and foul

Fit-fit (or fir-fir) is simply scrambled eggs with tomatoes and onions. Foul (pronounced "fool") — which has its roots in Middle Eastern trade routes and shares its name with a similar Levantine dish — calls to mind refried beans, served with tomatoes, onions, jalapeños and scrambled eggs. Both are typical Ethiopian breakfast foods, and both would probably be equally at home on your own breakfast table. You can try both at Sheba Cafe, where the restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Coffee

Coffee junkies can thank Ethiopia for introducing the caffeinated bean to the rest of the world. It still plays a central role in Ethiopian society today, with coffee ceremonies that include three rounds of the beverage; finger-food snacks such as popcorn; and the burning of incense as you commune with friends over coffee that has been roasted, ground and prepared on the spot. You can enjoy your own coffee ceremony with all the traditional accoutrements at Blue Nile, the city's oldest Ethiopian restaurant.

Tej

While a coffee ceremony is the traditional way to close out a meal, I prefer tej. The honey wine has the thick sweetness of mead but with an orange-blossom lightness to it that's intoxicating. It's served in unusual glass jugs that don't look as though you should drink from them, but that's the idea. Bottoms up!
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Restaurant News

Openings and Closings
The bar beat gets busy.

Katharine Shilcutt

News of four exciting upcoming bars was announced last week, with three of those heading downtown. Two are from the Clumsy Butcher team (the guys behind Anvil, Blacksmith, The Hay Merchant, Underbelly, OKRA Charity Saloon), and one of those was a total surprise. The team had already announced plans for a tequila bar, but a press release issued this week added another bar to their downtown roster.

The Pastry War will be a tequila bar at 310 Main that also carries "an incredible selection of mezcals and tequilas, many of which have never been poured in Texas previously." The bar, named for a Mexican battle against French forces, will also serve classic Mexican cocktails and beer at what Clumsy Butcher promises will be affordable prices.

The surprise bar is Trigger Happy, which will open right next door at 308 Main (yes, that's underneath Bad News Bar). The bar plans to carry "around 50-60 wines and 20 beers on draft," all of which will be "bold and daring," the selection chosen as a "tribute to the drinks Clumsy Butcher loves and wants to share with Houston."

Meanwhile, in Montrose, a new wine bar is headed into the space next door to Paulie's. Camerata will be a joint venture between Paulie's owner Paul Petronella and David Keck, a wine savant who was most recently the beverage director for Uchi. Camerata will have its own separate entrance, although Paulie's customers can enter the bar directly from the restaurant as well.

"In the Camerata at Paulie's, David wants to provide an unpretentious meeting place where guests can enjoy delicious beverages that are made by people, not companies, and speak of the place where they are grown, harvested, fermented, and bottled," writes Petronella on his Web site. "The food menu will be limited to fine charcuterie and cheese options. If looking for a full meal, dinner at Paulie's is recommended, then follow with drinks next door at Camerata."

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