Once upon a time, East Bay diners in search of Ethiopian cuisine had to trek to Oakland, seeking out eateries on Shattuck or Telegraph avenues, or maybe around Lake Merritt. But Ethiopian native Tsege Tamene changed all that in May with the opening of Taste of Ethiopia in El Cerrito, one of the latest ventures to spring out of Kitchen@812, the nonprofit food business incubator.
From the vivid spices to the vibrant vegetables, “fresh” is the word that first comes to mind here. It especially comes through in the vegetarian dishes ($7.95 each, or try all of them in the combination plate, $12.95). The green beans and sliced carrots, for example, are crisp-tender, and their simple sweetness provides a lovely foil to the bite and bitterness of the collard greens. The salad, which accompanies the entrees, is an attractive tumble of mesclun greens, cucumbers, tomatoes and red onion slivers.
Tamene’s turmeric-tinged split peas are creamy, mild and saucy, and the berbere-spiked red lentils retain a toothsome and almost juicy texture. These dishes are reminiscent of the cooking you’d find in an Ethiopian home, as opposed to a restaurant, where large batches and daylong simmering mean that legumes can completely disintegrate into a saucelike consistency.
Skip the lentil soup ($4.95). Its bouillon-y flavor doesn’t have the same fresh, from-scratch quality as other dishes. A better option to start would be the crisp, aromatic lentil-filled sambusas ($4.95); the berbere sauce on the side really makes it.
All the vegetarian options are vegan and prepared according to the fasting tradition (observant Ethiopians fast during Lent and on Wednesdays and Fridays). And gluten-free diners will rejoice in the all-teff injera (available upon request), the steamed bread that diners use to scoop up food with their fingertips. All-teff injera actually is quite a rarity in the United States; most teff is blended with barley, which gives injera its characteristic spongy texture.
Omnivores will find plenty to savor, too. We loved the doro w’et ($12.95), stewed chicken with sweet caramelized onion, berbere heat and warmth from spices including allspice and clove. The yebeg tibs ($13.95) was also excellent, with its marinated chunks of lamb with rosemary — not a traditional herb in this part of Africa but one that is popular in Ethiopian cuisine nonetheless.
Several types of beef are on offer, including kitfo ($12.95), the beloved dish of finely minced beef, marinated in mitmita, a distinctive Ethiopian chile blend, and niter kebbeh, a spiced ghee. To get really authentic, order it raw with kocho ($17.95), a griddled flatbread made from fermented ensete, a starchy bananalike plant.
You can’t get kocho at many Ethiopian restaurants. Indeed, the authentic yet hard-to-find touches found throughout Taste of Ethiopia are some of the restaurant’s biggest draws. For example, unless you have an Ethiopian auntie, chances are you haven’t tried telba, a frothy flaxseed drink that Tamene strains to a refreshing smoothness ($2.95). They offer a complimentary coffee ceremony on Sundays. And who wouldn’t opt, if offered the choice, to gather around a mesob — the large woven basket with a cone-shaped lid, used to serve communal platters — and lounge in carved, low-slung wooden chairs?
Desserts, such as baklava ($1.95) are brought in, rather than housemade. That’s fine if you’re really hankering for something sweet. For our money, we’d rather order a generous pour of tej, an Ethiopian honey wine.
Taste of Ethiopia may still have some new-restaurant kinks to work out. There are inconsistencies. On our second visit, the vegetarian dishes were not up to their previous high standard, and components of the dishes seemed altogether different. But its emphasis on fresh, homestyle cooking and its hard-to-find features (Ethiopian coffee served in your own jebena? Yes, please!) sets it apart. Ethiopian food lovers will find it worth their while to make this trek.
Taste of Ethiopia
* * ½
WHERE: 11740B San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito
HOURS: Noon-4 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday and 5-8 p.m. Tuesday-
PRICES: Entrees $7.95-$17.95
VEGETARIAN: An entire section of the menu is devoted to vegetarian options.
BEVERAGES: Wine and beer, Ethiopian coffee and soft drinks
RESERVATIONS: Not necessary
NOISE LEVEL: Medium
PARKING: Parking lot
KIDS: Children will enjoy the lentils and veggies.
PLUSES: Super-fresh vegetarian and meat selections, Ethiopian coffee and plenty of authentic, hard-to-find touches
MINUSES: Some inconsistencies
DATE OPENED: May
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Restaurants are rated on a scale of one to four, with four representing utter perfection in food, ambience and service. A three is a great restaurant and a two is fair to good. Ones are best avoided.
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