OAKTOWN EATS: Injera and Berbere Sauce on Telegraph
on July 5, 2009
By ALEXIA UNDERWOOD
(Shilanda Woolridge and Ayako Mie contributed to this review.)
The proliferation of Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants along Telegraph Avenue is one of North Oakland’s less celebrated features. Yet, once you’ve tried it, who can turn down a soft, spongy handful of slightly sour Ingera (flat, pancake-like bread) combined with a thick, spicy Berbere sauce (made with ground red chili peppers, cumin and other spices), often served on a communal ‘family style platter? Better yet, what adult would say no to an opportunity to eat with their hands?
Meat-lovers and vegetarians alike can get on this train. Oakland North decided to review a few of these havens of spice and report back. We avoided Asmara, in the heart of trendy Temescal in favor of a few lesser-known choices.
Addis Ethiopian Restaurant – 6100 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland
Addis is located on its own lot and feels like a world unto itself. The interior is warm, intimate and decorated with bamboo matting and baskets. We noticed more than a few Ethiopian couples eating here (always a good sign when the locals like the grub) and took a seat in a back corner on a few straw and wooden stools. We chummily crowded around the cone-shaped basket table and dug into two Addis combinations, using the plentiful folds of injera to scoop up more and more bites of the flavorful stews. Okay, we stuffed ourselves – and kept eating.
The dazzling array of vegetarian and meat dishes turned out to be more than enough to satisfy four diners’ appetites. The Awaze Tibs (lamb sauted in spices) which we added to our combo, was sharp and pungent with a shockingly spicy aftertaste. The Yedoro Wot, (‘Ethiopia’s favorite dish,’ the menu proclaimed) consisting of a chicken drumstick and egg in a spicy berbere sauce, possessed a flavor so rich it was compared to mole by one of the diners.
We left incredibly full and feeling guilty about all of the un-scooped food and un-eaten grease-soaked injera that serves as the platter – the best part of the meal. The food was hearty, spicy and good, if not quite swoon-worthy. A Harar Ethiopian beer goes well with all of that spice.
Meat Combo: Yedoro Wot (Chicken in berbere sauce) Yesega Wot (beef in berbere sauce) Yesega Alicha (beef in turmeric sauce)
Vegetarian Combo: Gomen (collard greens) Yemeser Wot (lentils in berbere sauce) Ater Kik, (split peas) Alicha Denich (carrots and potatoes)
(Four out of Five Collard Green Leaves)
Café Colucci – 6427 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland
Café Colucci , while famous for its mouth-watering vegetarian combo, provided the most streamlined Ethiopian dining experience of the three. We arrived for lunch around 1:45 and the crowd appeared to be made up of students and white, upper-class foodies.
The waitress was helpful and pleasant but didn’t know what the baskets lining the walls were called. She sent us next door to talk to the woman working at Albo, a small Ethiopian shop, who obligingly wrote it down for us. (“Meshob.”) The red lentils (Azifa) and chickpeas (Buticha) which sat in small, coy puddles on the injera possessed a perfect melty texture.
The meat dishes, Sega Alicha and Gomen Be Sega were a bit stringy and dry and the portions a little skimpy, although the huge dollop of sour cream in the middle of the platter, though surprising, provided a nice addition.
The Dora Alicha, a large chunk of chicken stewed with collared greens, would have been better substituted with the ubiquitous Dor0 (or Yedora) Wot. It also lacked a boiled egg, as the menu assured us it would have. That said, the food was reasonably priced and the large, sparkling open kitchen at the entrance was a nice touch as were the vegan-friendly selections.
They are most busy on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, the waitress told us. Their front patio lined with palm fronds and scattered with wooden benches (one family brought their Saint Bernard) looked like a fun place to gather with groups of friends.
Vegetarian Combo: Azifa (lentils) Buticha (chickpeas) Messer wot (lentils in a berbere sauce) Kik Alicha (split peas in turmeric sauce) Gomen (collard greens) and Atakilt (cabbage, carrots and tomatoes)
Meat Combo: Dora Alicha (chicken in turmeric sauce) Begue Wot (lamb in berbere sauce) Sega Alicha (beef in Turmeric sauce) Minchet Abish Wot (ground beef with berbere sauce) and Gomen be Sega (collard greens with beef, lamb and ribs).
(3 out of 5 collard green leaves)
Café Eritrea d’Afrique – 4069 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland
This small, basically unadorned hole-in-the-wall on an abandoned-looking stretch of Telegraph is deceiving. The neon letters in the window advertise Ethiopian and Eritrean food but you might think you walked into the wrong place. Customers immediately encounter a full bar in one corner, with a TV blaring CNN.
The dining room on the other side of the wall could be any restaurant or dive even with the exception of the occasional Meshob or painted animal skin. The tables are white, the chairs classic metal and plastic, the light dim – but not romantically so.
It doesn’t immediately feel intimate or personal but the service is a delight and the food intense, plentiful and exploding with spicy, rich flavors. The portions for two combinations (vegetarian and meat, which each consisted of several different dishes) could have fed four rather than two.
The sour Injera stood out– its distinct flavor that, rather than distracting from the rich berbere-heavy sauces, enhanced them. Or maybe that’s the sweet and mellow honey-wine (Tej) talking. The lentils and chickpeas were melt-in-your-mouth flavorful. Even so, we couldn’t eat the whole thing and our waitress thoughtfully packed our leftovers for us – not an easy task.
Jerry, in hospital scrubs eating at a table next to us lauded the restaurants popularity with the Eritrean community. “What makes this place good is its sense of community. Everyone who eats here lives around here,” he said. “When I bring my friends to this area they’re like, ‘where are you taking me?” he said, laughing. “I tell them, ‘Don’t worry.’”
The Eritrean names were different although the dishes seemed essentially the same, but slightly richer in flavor:
Vegetarian combo: Hamlee (collard greens) Shiro (chick peas), Lentils, Denish (potatoes, carrots, onions), Alicha (cabbage)
Meat Combo: Zigni (beef with berbere sauce) Dorho (chicken in a turmeric sauce) Aliche Tibsee (Lamb in turmeric sauce.)
(5 out of 5 collard green leaves)
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