Askale Cafe

I’ve clearly been jonesing for Ethiopian food lately. When my friend Kevin arrived in town after a red-eye flight, I insisted we stop here to refuel with spicy vegetarian goodness and coffee. I’ll keep this brief because it took both of us approximately 68 seconds to wolf down this meal. I surprised myself by ordering ful, the ultimate savory breakfast, as well as a latte.

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It took a long time to arrive, especially considering we were the only ones in the restaurant, but my meal arrived in this adorable little skillet with all the stuck-on crusties that I know will be impossible to wash off, so I know it came straight off the stove. It was pleasantly spicy but not overwhelming, and chock-full of beans, like a comforting chili. I’m not sure why it has never occurred to me to eat chili for breakfast–or to put an egg on top of my chili–but I think it’s high time I start. The bread was not housemade, but it was crusty and absorbent!

My latte was also flavorful and rich, which I expect from LITERALLY THE INVENTORS OF COFFEE. This makes me even more baffled by my unfortunate sludge-drinking experience at Abem Family Deli last weekend. I’m glad that Askale could make me whole again.

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Price: $15 per person.

Bottom line: Askale Cafe is a real treat and a neighborhood gem. Don’t miss the breakfast.

Abem Family Supermarket and Deli

I’ve lived around the corner for five years, so I’ve seen this piece of property change hands more than a marble in a shyster’s shell game, and I’ve seen it go from closed down, to an open but nearly-empty storefront that probably [read: definitely] housed a cockfighting ring in the back, to closed again, to a slightly less empty front that looks like it could be a money-laundering business but seems to be collectively owned by a very nice Ethiopian family. My husband and I generally refer to this place as “the Soviet market” because although they do stock a fair number of Ethiopian spice blends and some lesser-known candy bars, they never seem to have more than half the shelves full, and it’s always stuff we don’t want. I should also mention that I was once conned into buying a huge jar of Ethiopian spiced butter here that didn’t have a price tag but rang up as $28.99 (to my credit, though, I use that stuff all the time for cooking).

Now, the aforementioned nice Ethiopian family have been swearing up and down to me for at least a year that they are going to turn half the space into an Ethiopian cafe but aside from some empty fridges and day-old coffee, that plan never seemed to materialize. So imagine our surprise when, this morning, we received an email on the neighborhood listserv alerting us to their new brunch menu! We knew it was legit when we walked up and saw these Ethiopian-themed balloons.

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We appeared to be the first customers. They’d decorated the restaurant space in a, let’s say, minimalist vein. The women working behind the food counter showed us big trays of their vegetarian offerings–the standard Ethiopian fare–and told us they also had tibs. We ordered both, along with a coffee. They were all set up for a traditional coffee ceremony to be held later this afternoon, so I would think that they would take more pride in their regular brew. Sidamo on H Street has totally mastered the art of good coffee for the masses. Fortunately, this cold, sludgy French vanilla nightmare was the low point of the meal.

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As you can see, the vegetarian platter had all the usual yums with some fun additions–carrots and green beans, and stewed kale replacing the traditional collards. And all of it was served cold (I asked one of the workers if this was an intentional choice and she responded that they had made everything last night, so…maybe?) If you are a fan of cold Chinese food or, as I have recently discovered, cold Thai curry, then cold Ethiopian food is for you! Even my husband the kale-hater liked their kale. The red lentils and yellow peas were both great, but the brown lentils were kind of bland.

MVIMG_20180804_123740.jpgHere’s the tibs. It was so much that we took home enough for one person’s lunch tomorrow. The meat was hot and mostly cooked well, with a few very chewy sections. It was served in a bowl of oil reminiscent of Sichuan hotpot. They gave us the dixie cup full of berbere, which we fully utilized, but would have worked better had it been added during cooking. I think maybe they were trying hard to cater to uninitiated tastes but as they always say: If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the Ethiopian restaurant.

Abem Family Deli also sells a variety of salads, boring sandwiches, and, bizarrely, tacos. Everyone knows that tacos are the official food of gentrification, so there’s some weird neighborhood stereotyping going on here. I may have to try some just to report back.

Price: $10 per person.

Bottom line: Abem Family Deli is not the best Ethiopian food in town, but it’s definitely the closest to me! I will continue to support them periodically in hopes of more offerings, more hours, more tables, and better coffee.

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Chez Dior

I want to ask forgiveness preemptively for the absolute injustice I’m about to do Chez Dior in this description. I’ve eaten a lot of food. I’ve eaten a decent amount of African food. More than the average bear for sure. And yet I am still somehow extremely under-equipped to talk about the flavors of Senegal, as portrayed by Chez Dior.

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The building is unassuming. The interior looks like the inside of TGI Fridays run by religious zealot African immigrants. The owner was kind and welcoming and implored us to order anything off either the lunch or dinner menus. You know you’re in the right hole in the wall when the menu is full of typos. We wanted a healthy sampling of their offerings, plus I had already planned this meal extensively, so we ordered an appetizer, two entrees, and a side. I’ll just jump right in here.

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On the left is the Accra appetizer, black eyed pea fritters with tomato sauce. This worked really well. The tomato sauce was like a delicious spicy marinara. The fritters were crispy on the outside, soft and bean-y on the inside. On the right was my entree selection: Ndole with plantains. The greens were very bitter (as advertised) but also had an interesting depth. Buried under all that green is a large hunk of lamb, some of it tender. The plantains were not like typical Latin-American twice-cooked sweet plantains but more bitter, drier, and starchier.

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On the left here is the athieke side. I learned from Wikipedia that it’s a staple side in Senegal–basically couscous made from cassava instead of wheat–and I couldn’t pass it up because it’s such an interesting study in human geography. After I took the photo, the owner came back to deliver a spicy vinegar-cucumber salsa to go on top of it, which dramatically elevated it from plain couscous to saucy couscous. On the right is my husband’s dinner selection: the red and white fish. The jollof rice and the accompanying hearty sauce were great, and as I’ve stated many times, I believe that rice is a lame excuse for a carbohydrate. The fish was the star–a meaty white fish with a rich, almost beefy sauce. The vegetables with it were good–some boiled cassava, cabbage, and basically an entire carrot.

We asked for boxes to take home our leftovers and couldn’t even fit all the leftovers inside. Our table looked like a hurricane of rice and rice-like things had just blown through.

Price: $20 per person, with leftovers for days.

Bottom line: If you want to try something you’ve never had before, or you want to fill your plate with an inexplicable variety and excessive amount of carbs, Chez Dior is for you. Fine dining it is not, but it is a hole in the wall like none you’ve tried before.

[The New] Zenebech!

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The old Zenebech would have made my “always yes” list but it closed about a year ago (RIP) and I thought all was lost. It was only last night, during an outing in AdMo, that I coincidentally noticed the NEW Zenebech in its fancy new location on 18th Street, so we headed there tonight. I was really worried about not getting a table because seating was tight in their old U Street location, so we arrived at around 6 to a nearly empty restaurant.

The inside of the restaurant was definitely a fancy step-up from their U Street hole in the wall. Nice bar with seating, subway tile, exposed brick, and say goodbye to the plastic chairs! This place got classy! The bar also had a decent selection of domestic craft beers on top of their usual Ethiopian bottles. We ordered basically immediately because, like I said, old Zenebech was our jam: one each of the beef and chicken sambusas, the vegetarian platter, and awazay tibs (which we reluctantly ordered with lamb, though we were fearful that it would be chewy).

In the old Zenebech, I would have been constantly tortured as platter after platter arrived for everyone except me. But here, the food arrived incredibly fast. The chicken sambusa was new, I believe, or at least new to me. My husband actually preferred it to the beef. The beef pastry was crispy and well-spiced. There was a new lentil addition to the vegetarian platter, which was milder in flavor than the other, and the lamb tibs was incredibly tender, though not as spicy as I would have liked, and too saucy to be either poured onto the injera or to be dipped into with the extra injera. We mostly ended up eating it with a spoon. My only other complaint is that I could barely walk out of the restaurant because I ate so much.

All in all, new Zenebech totally holds up, and their extremely reasonable prices will continue to make this a perennial favorite. The new AdMo location is no longer walkable for me the way U Street was, but considering how much I ate, perhaps that’s for the best.

The bottom line: Still delicious, will become a cult classic.

Price: Roughly $25 per person