Cook's Choice
The first time I wandered into the Maru Grocery, I did so out of simple curiosity. I had just sated myself at the nearby Cafe Piquet, and when I walked out I noticed to my left a small storefront with a sign in the window advertising enjera. I'd always seen the word spelled injera, but a stray vowel couldn't hide the fact that I'd run across the first food store I'd ever found in Houston that sold the gray, spongy bread that's both plate and utensil for Ethiopian cuisine.

A peek inside didn't look particularly promising. Yes, there were posters of Ethiopia along one wall, but in general the fare seemed the sort you'd find in any small market. It was only when I rounded a corner that I noticed a baker's rack with stacks of fresh injera wrapped in clear plastic.

That was delight enough, but it was while standing at the cashier's counter, paying for my purchase, that I made my true discovery. I heard some voices coming from behind a large partition, and when I crooked my head around it, I saw four men happily eating. They had a large platter of the thick Ethiopian stews known as wots in front of them, and steaming cups of strong Ethiopian coffee by their sides.

A private party, I asked the clerk? Nope, she said, just the hangover from the lunch crowd. Could I see a menu, I wondered? Sorry, she replied, there are no menus: The cook makes what she feels like making that day, and if you feel like eating it, you're welcome to do so.

Actually, as I've since found, Maru (an import from Dallas, of all places, that opened its doors late last year) isn't quite that austere. True, there's no menu, and true, the selections change day to day depending on the cook's whim and what's available. But in general there are always at least three selections, one of them vegetarian. Personally, I've given up trying to decipher the verbally presented choices; I just ask for a little of everything, and I've yet to be disappointed. The sharply spiced beef stew known as banatu, the chopped spinach known as gomen, a side pile of Ethiopian cheese that tastes like a cross between cottage cheese and feta -- scooped up with a piece of the (of course) fresh injera, it's all delightful. And it's all relatively cheap; you can spend under $10 per person and leave stuffed. It's like, I decided, being invited to the house of an exotic friend for dinner and being told, "Trust me, I know what's good." You do. And in the case of Maru Grocery, they do.

-- Mitchell J. Shields

Maru Grocery, 6065 Bissonnet, 665-6608.

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Mitchell J. Shields