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Ethiopian immigrants must be among the nation’s canniest restaurateurs. Though numbering only 33,000 nationwide, they’ve assembled an impressive collection of restaurants in major American cities: Washington boasts 17, Seattle 11, and New York 12, plus a pair of Eritrean joints. Many share an assortment of predictable names like Blue Nile, Red Sea, Queen of Sheba, and Meskerem (the joyous first month of the Coptic Christian calendar), though none seems part of a chain. Sadly, they also mount nearly identical menus of brick-colored meat stews and hard-to-differentiate pulse purees. Between the intriguing and sometimes fiery spice combinations and the chance to eat with your fingers without your parents lurking around to scold you, most of these places are pretty appealing anyway. But Ethiopian cooking is much broader.
New York finally has its own Queen of Sheba, recently opened in Hell’s Kitchen around the corner from Meskerem, the city’s best Ethiopian. With some excitement, I found myself scanning the menu for oddities that would expand New York’s repertoire of Abyssinian dishes. Kategna ($4.59) is nearly unique, a warm appetizer of toasted injera flooded with gritty chile butter. It’s scrumptious, and stains your fingers a flattering shade of red. Kategna is a favorite breakfast back home, much the way we toast stale Wonder. Dabo ($3.25) is another revelation, a dense semolina bread cut in cakelike squares and dotted with black nigella seeds, proving that Ethiopian cooks can wield the yeast cake with the best of them. It’s served with a dense dipping sauce that’s a moisturized version of berbere, the country’s signature chile powder, which contains as many as 20 other trace ingredients, notably fenugreek, cardamom, ginger, and rue seed.
Bozena shiro ($8.50) is another novelty, lamb diced as fine as wheat grains and suspended in a low-density whip of chickpeas. The dish is so bland, comparisons with baby food are inevitable. Quanta fiffir, on the other hand, is a scalding scramble of torn injera and quanta, a beef jerky much chewier and tastier than fresh beef. Speaking of fresh beef, the Ethiopians were on top of the tartare thing before Christ was born, putting Manhattan pioneers like the ’21’ Club to shame. At Sheba, the best tartare is not the usual kitfo, which is minced, but gored-gored ($11), featuring tender hatchet-shaped chunks of raw beef dabbed with a sauce nearly the same as the one you dipped your dabo in.
While Sheba does some interesting new dishes, a few of the old standards flop. The vegetarian favorite azifa ($5), a cold lentil salad laced with green chiles and English mustard, is usually a great remedy for a head cold. Here it’s a dull heap of broken green lentils that seem to have misplaced their dressing entirely. And forget the tibs, a trio of lamb stir-fries nearly indistinguishable in their overcooked grayness. Though Sheba ignores the cousin of cottage cheese called ayib—inundated with cardamom butter, ayib is one of the highlights of Washington’s Meskerem—it does make one of the false varieties that are eaten when religious fasts rule out dairy products. Composed of crushed chickpeas laced with olive oil and shallots, buticha ($8.50) is memorable for its cool, clean flavor. It beats the pants off of soy cheese, believe me.
So what’s missing from Ethiopian-American menus? Here are some things I’d love to try: ye’assa immis—a fish ceviche with a triple wallop of cayenne, black pepper, and green chiles; iskunfur—beef tripe stuffed like Scottish haggis; yeshimbra yassa—little pastry fish made of chickpea dough that swim in chile sauce; and samma wet—garlicky sautéed nettles. C’mon, Ethiopian chefs: Take us to the next level!