The iconography is eclectic at The Queen of Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant. On a wall behind the television is a picture of Emperor Haile Selassie, Elect of God, King of the Kings of Ethiopia. But the emperor has competition. Not far from his left shoulder, there's another picture (a poster, actually), this one featuring God's elect as well: the grinning triumvirate of Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and Clive Drexler.
They're avid sports fans at the Queen of Sheba. The TV seems permanently tuned to ESPN. On my second visit, we were treated to an Astros-Dodgers game, and on my first, to game five of the Lakers-Jazz series. To my surprise, everyone was urging on L.A. (From time to time in all that Amharic, Ethiopia's official language, one could distinguish a little English: "rebound," "Shaq" and "defense.")
"Why Los Angeles?" I asked Seifu Cheho, the manager, who seemed embarrassed by the question. "Is it because Utah knocked out the Rockets?"
"Well, yes," he said, finally. "I just didn't like to say so."
Cheho is a man of some delicacy. When I referred to a third picture in the spotlessly clean dining room -- this one of the Queen of Sheba being presented to King Solomon -- he giggled nervously. And when I asked what became of that good lady, he lowered his head and muttered something.
He swallowed hard. "She had a baby," he said. To hear him, you'd think she had shamed not just him, but every single one of his countrymen.
Food looms large in the legends of Ethiopia, and how Sheba found herself with child is the subject of one of them. Solomon, not just wise, but unscrupulous also, tricked her into sleeping with him, first by feeding her lots of salted meat, and then by promising that he wouldn't take her by force if she swore to respect his possessions. But that salt was her downfall. Consumed by thirst, Sheba helped herself to a bowl of water. She had broken her vow now, but she was a good sport about it, and let Solomon have his way with her. Nine months later, she gave birth to a son from whom the kings of Ethiopia -- the last of whom was Haile Selassie -- claimed to be descended.
The Ethiopian diet -- consisting largely of vegetable and meat stews and a flat, spongy, sourdough bread known as injera -- is delicious. Injera is made from teff, an Ethiopian grain that is allowed to ferment. (Teff is hard to find in the U.S., but you can make an acceptable substitute, I'm told, by using self-rising flour, whole-wheat flour, baking powder and soda water.) The bread, which has the slightly gummy consistency of chamois, is not unpleasant, but honesty compels me to say that I wouldn't want to eat a lot of it.
Injera is more than a foodstuff. It also serves as a spoon. Ethiopians use it to sop up those wonderfully fragrant stews. Don't worry. If eating with your fingers offends you -- and believe me, it shouldn't; hands beat the socks off utensils -- the Queen of Sheba also provides knives and forks. In some Ethiopian restaurants -- and this is not one of them -- injera performs the same function as a plate; the stews are ladled directly onto the bread.
A lot of Ethiopian food is of the three-alarm variety. (In a concession to the American palate, most dishes here are available in hot and mild versions.) Much of the heat is generated by berbere, a sauce combining cumin, coriander, ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, cayenne pepper, paprika, salt and powdered onions. As cocktails go, this one is potent, but while berbere will certainly make your mouth glow, it's sufficiently well calibrated that you're unlikely to find yourself charging down Bellaire Boulevard clutching your throat and bellowing for water.
It won't take you long to work your way through The Queen of Sheba's menu: There are in all just 13 dishes, eight containing meat, the others vegetables. But with one exception, everything I tasted was very good.
Misser wote ($3.95) is a savory sauce of red lentils to which a judicious amount of onion has been added; yatakelt wote ($4.10) combines fresh vegetables (usually carrots, cabbage and potatoes); and gomen wote ($4.25) features collard greens. I don't normally like collard greens. They're the vegetable world's equivalent of Gloomy Gus, and I find them overly somber. But the greens here are fine, enlivened as they are by lots of garlic.
Doro wote ($4.80) is chicken stewed in an assertive red sauce and served with a hard-boiled egg. Nearly as good is lega tibs ($7.25), small strips of beef made robust by onions and chiles. I especially liked minchet abesh ($4.30), ground beef drained of fat and stewed with herbs. There's nothing very complex here. Indeed, it's all rather straightforward. But it's precisely this that makes it so appealing. This is honest food: good ingredients cooked simply and with care.
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The one thing I didn't take to was yebeg wote ($6.10) -- lamb stew. The dish is cooked with berbere and kibe -- a kind of clarified butter much like the Indian ghee. I think it was the kibe I took exception to. It flattened all the other flavors, and made the dish taste muddy.
If you're in a mood to sample, you might consider beyaynetu, a platter combining yebeg wote, minchet abesh, tibs wote (beef stew), keke wote (a delicious pea stew), yatakelt wote and gomen wote. At $7.35, it's a very good value.
Teg honey wine is available as well. Besides being very sweet, it's orange in color and tastes slightly of carbonation. It put me in mind of mead. It's also very potent. Which I hadn't expected. I'd been assured it contained no alcohol at all.
Queen of Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant, 5710 Bellaire Boulevard, 665-3009.