6251 Bissonnet, 713-272-7770.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
Yedoro wat: $10.99
Vegetable combination: $10.99
Sheba foul: $5.99
Kita fir-fir: $7.99
Enqulal fir-fir: $5.99
If there were any justice in this world, more people would be enjoying Ethiopian food for breakfast.
Of course, that would require more than one Houston restaurant to be serving the stuff. That one restaurant is Sheba Cafe, the newest addition to the city's small but vibrant Ethiopian dining scene. When Addisaba closed recently, I took it as a worrying sign that our already tiny cluster of Ethiopian restaurants was shriveling and dying. Luckily, the food at Sheba Cafe — breakfast included — assures the the luscious, richly spiced cuisine a vital place in Houston.
Breakfast at Sheba isn't all that different from the standard American or Tex-Mex breakfasts to which we as a city have become accustomed. Eggs, beans, jalapeños, tomatoes, beef and wheat are all standards; it's just the presentation that's different. In that sense, it's just like lunch and dinner Ethiopian-style: familiar ingredients (e.g., cabbage, lentils, chicken, peas, carrots, lamb) prepared differently from what American palates (and eyes) are accustomed to.
My long-suffering boyfriend found this out firsthand one sleepy Saturday morning when I dragged him out of the house with promises of breakfast. "Where are we going?" he asked. I quickly turned up Car Talk on the radio and began loudly talking about Click and Clack in an attempt at distraction; subterfuge is sometimes the only way to get him to less mainstream restaurants. It worked. As we made our way into Gulfton, he suddenly snapped to and reiterated his question: "No, seriously, Katharine. Where are we going?"
I pulled into the strip mall off Bissonnet that houses Sheba Cafe. He looked at the Hoagies and More shop next door that was advertising a confusing half-Vietnamese, half-Salvadoran menu on its windows. "Are we eating Vietnamese hoagies for breakfast?" he demanded.
"Nope!" I chimed back. "Better! Ethiopian food!" His face fell. The light in his eyes that was no doubt fueled by visions of pancakes and orange juice had died. I suddenly felt like the most terrible person in the world.
Ethiopian food is still considered "exotic" in Houston. And, by some — like my boyfriend — the various stews and raw dishes are also considered unappetizing. The act of eating sans utensils, with one's hands and pieces of bread, also seems to be a turnoff for some people. (What? You're too good to wash your hands or something?) But I was determined to change his mind with this meal. I was determined to make him happy with this food.
Half an hour later, our table groaned under the weight of assorted breakfast dishes: a hot bowl of oatmeal-like kinche; a giant platter of kita fir-fir, vivid green jalapeños peeking out from the layers of bread and beef; a brightly festooned bowl of foul filled with a paste of fava beans and condiments; and an equally colorful plate of eggs and tomatoes, enqulal fir-fir. A basket of injera bread and another of fluffy French bread — meant for the foul — sat off to the side.
Two cups of fiery Ethiopian coffee — its strength further enhanced with some sugar — sat waiting, steam rising from the black liquid. That morning, Sheba had the front doors flung open and a slight breeze ruffled the white curtains around the windows as sunshine streamed into the small space, touching on the six tables with their soft, fringed tablecloths. I was blissfully happy.
Across the table, my boyfriend looked less convinced. I handed the bowl of kinche to him first. Cracked wheat cooked in milk and then mixed with slightly sweet clarified butter, kinche is Ethiopia's equivalent of oatmeal. Unlike oatmeal, it has a delightfully springy and occasionally crunchy texture as well as an unforgettable taste that's both nutty and faintly floral at once. I'm known to say this about many dishes, but kinche truly is one of those things I could eat every day.
At a table cattycorner from us, I noticed that the two Ethiopian twentysomethings who were eating breakfast were also enjoying bowls of kinche with mugs of tea. The tea in and of itself deserves attention: Water steeped with warm cloves and cinnamon is served alongside a simple Lipton tea bag. You'll never look at Lipton (or Luzianne) the same way again with a cup of spiced water in front of you. Oh, the possibilities for this winter...
Turning my attention back to the table, I saw that my boyfriend had begun making a makeshift breakfast taco with the injera bread and ingredients scooped from various dishes: beans from the foul, jalapeños from the kita fir-fir, eggs from the enqulal fir-fir. "What are you doing?" I smiled at him.
"I'm Mexican," he laughed. "I'm making a taco."
He was also making my point with his Tex-Mex-Ethiopian construction: Aside from the tart injera bread, made with teff flour and having the consistency of flattened sourdough bread, there was nothing on the table that wasn't recognizable even to the most mainstream of diners. The foul (pronounced "fool"), in particular, is a widely recognized breakfast dish that's popular from Egypt to Eritrea and all throughout the Middle East.
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.
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.
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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.