Welcome to Spice Route, in which food writer Warren Rojas connects diners to the most fiery and flavorful dishes in area restaurants.
Location: Zenebech, 2420 18th St. NW; (202) 667-4700; zenebechdc.com
Vision: Raw. Fried. Zapped with spiced butter.
Cooking methods run the gamut at Zenebech, the family-run restaurant that’s delighted fans of Ethiopian cuisine for decades in different locations.
Founders Zenebech Dessu and Gebrehanna Demissie started out making injera in Shaw during the Clinton administration. The stretchy, spongy bread acts as both a serving platter and as a kind of edible utensil you can use to pick up Ethiopian food and bring it to your mouth. Over time they introduced lentil-filled pastries, berbere-boosted vegetable dishes, and protein-packed stews. The couple continued serving these culinary touchstones when they relocated to Adams Morgan in 2017.
The new(ish) space boasts modern flourishes such as a full-service bar outfitted with TVs showcasing East African music videos; African paintings; and a section of the main dining room reserved for carefully choreographed coffee ceremonies.
The most magical part about Zenebech, though, has to be its kitchen. That’s where Dessu composes her mesmerizing dishes.
Execution: Zenebech’s menu is peppered with flavorful fare.
Vegetarians have their pick of aromatic creations including creamy split peas benefitting from fresh ginger, as well as hash-like mounds of floppy injera stir fried with jalapeño and onion. Other dishes turn up the heat with chili pepper-fueled spice blends (mitmita), slow-cooked hot peppers, or garlicky clarified butter (niter kibbeh). True chili-heads, however, stick with the awaze tibs for good reason.
Prepared with either beef or lamb, the ocher-colored dish is vibrant and seductive. The surface layer is sprinkled with chopped jalapeños, which serve as a warning signal, and plump tomatoes. Below that resides a fragrant sauce punctuated by garlic, onion, and herbs. Each morsel of meat spits fire after mingling with the chili peppers and earthy spice paste kitchen staff expertly weave into the dish.
Intensity (out of five): Four sirens