I love Ethiopian food. Any cuisine that scoffs at utensils and encourages communal dining as a rule, is aces in my book. I do not love Pflugerville. Any town that requires you to drive past 16 strip malls to get to your destination is, generally speaking, not where I want to be.
Last week however, these two parts of my life collided and delicious Ethiopian came out squarely on top.
Austin has several Ethiopian restaurants: Aster’s, Karibu, the now defunct World Café. But all of them are so-so. I get some pretty serious cravings for the tangy, chewy injera, rich spiced vegetables, and fragrant lentil dishes, so we make it a point to hit up good Ethiopian restaurants when we’re in cities like D.C. or Chicago.
Injera in an Adorable Basket.
For the past six months, though, I’ve been hearing buzz about this little place up north, in the middle of concrete sprawlsville. I don’t think of central Texas suburbs as prime area for African food, but I’m ever hopeful.
Coffee Service, Ethiopian Style.
We finally sucked it up and made the 25-minute trek to Taste of Ethiopia. Oh. My. Yes, yes, hell yes. This place needs to be uprooted and put behind my house.
The exterior is certainly deceiving, nestled as it is next to a dry cleaner/pedicure/$100 gold grills supplier, but don’t be fooled. The inside is tastefully done in warm earth tones and the walls are hung with interesting African art and objects. Each of the dozen or so tables hosts a beautiful hand-woven basket made in Ethiopia by the owner’s cousin.
And speaking of the owners, Woinee (she pronounces it Winnie) and her husband, Solomon could not have been more gracious and accommodating. Woinee is a whirlwind, serving as head chef, waitress and all around maître d'. She greeted all the customers as if we’d been coming there for years.
We started with some tall glasses of hot, cardamom infused tea. It wasn’t sweet like I was expecting, but the spicy toastiness of it sure piqued my appetite.
The menu has a lot of the staples that you see at most Ethiopian restaurants, not that that’s a bad thing. It’s all in the execution right? Being unable to decide, we ordered the entire vegetarian section. The menu thoughtfully calls this the “Ultimate Combo” to spare you the shame of listing every single item individually.
Just in case we might not explode from our first selection, we doubled down with an order of Kitfo. Kitfo may be one of my all time favorite meat dishes. Basically an Ethiopian tartare, it’s made by gently warming small cubes of beef in a spiced, clarified butter called nit’r qibe and then folding in a seasoning called mitmita- a flavor explosion of African birdseye chilies, black cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, cumin, and ginger among other things.
The end result is a soft, buttery beef that practically dissolves in your mouth. It leaves you with just a suggestion of heat and heady fragrance.
Warning: If you insist, the kind proprietors will cook the Kitfo to various degrees of doneness for your ignorant white ass. Do not allow this to happen. It’s kind of like asking the sushi chef to chuck the salmon on a burner for a few minutes. No. Bad diner.
The service was unusually personable as well. All of the food components arrived in little bowls, then Woinee spooned them out on the injera while explaining each dish to us.
The greens, carrots, lentils, split peas, cabbage, eggplant and other vegetables were each very well prepared. The dishes complimented each other with a range of sweet, spicy, sour, and a touch of bitter. It’s fun to eat them separately or gather little bits of each into tiny Africanized tacos.
After our prolonged feeding fury, we decided to rouse ourselves with a fresh brewed pot (as in clay pot) of coffee. Ethiopians take their coffee very seriously.
I asked Woinee if she toasted her own beans. She cocked an eyebrow half way up her forehead and hit me with her best incredulous stare, “You know it!,” she declared. Then she broke into a broad smile and ran to the back to show me her beans and roasting pan. Literally. Don't be nasty.
We were just going to have a cup each, but she somehow managed to talk me into a piece of her amazing homemade baklava. It’s flaky and nutty, and has that chewy texture that comes from just the right amount of soaking in honey. We ended up drinking two pots. Regret is for sissies.
We ended the meal by checking out the patio. The owners are trying to set up some more traditional seating areas with wooden stools and beautiful hand-woven mesobs. I can’t wait to drag a passel of friends out there for a party.
And just so you know, they’ve applied for a liquor license but currently the whole operation is BYOB.
I should also mention that in addition to running the restaurant, Woinee is trying to start a program to teach cooking lessons to mentally challenged kids. Her own daughter has autism and she’s found that the creative environment of the kitchen can be an excellent social and cultural bridge. Cool people doing good works always deserve our support.
Yay for local awesome Ethiopian food!
Taste of Ethiopia. 1466 Grand Avenue Parkway, Pflugerville, TX. 512.251.4053