Sunlight is streaming into the dining room at Meaza Ethiopian Cuisine and Café, giving me a clear view of the parking lot and, beyond that, of the KFC across the street from this Falls Church restaurant. The light pouring in the front door is so bright that it creates a silhouette effect on every object in my direct sightline, down to the little snags of carpet that look like idle crickets in the mid-afternoon sun.
The woman standing at my right is just a disembodied voice, her head and shoulders reduced to a cameo as her body eclipses the light to my two-top. The effect gives her a sort of regal, otherworldly carriage, which seems appropriate. To my left, after all, are a series of somber portraits painted on stretched-out animal hides, each depicting an Ethiopian emperor in those halcyon days before the Commies. The magisterial voice hovering over my table suggests I try the short-rib tibs. Who am I to argue with the great Meaza?
The voice, it turns out, belongs to owner Meaza Zemedu, the veteran restaurateur and, for years, the homemade injera supplier to every Ethiopian eatery that mattered in D.C. Her appearance at my table seems like a courtesy, a personal welcome. I will not see her again, but her recommended plate of tibs will soon make an even better impression. A waitress trots out a sizzling cast-iron platter of short ribs, onions, and jalapeños. She uses a pair of tongs to carefully place each meaty bone onto an injera-covered platter, then takes the back of the tongs to squeegee the veggies and pan jus over my mound of steaming beef. I take a moment to breathe in the air, which is dense with smoke and the fragrant heat of seared jalapeños.
This lunch, believe it or not, is my second for the day. I spotted Meaza as I was driving home from an earlier multicourse meal. My immediate lack of appetite has its benefits: I have time to admire the technique of Meaza’s short-rib tibs. The flesh on the bone has been sliced once down the middle, then several times across its width; the cutting technique creates these little nubbins of meat—you could call them cubes (or “cubs” as the menu repeatedly refers to them, in a bit of wild kingdom confusion)—that are still attached to the bone.
At the tip, each nubbin has been charred to the point of dehydration, but at its base, each remains moist and fatty. You can dislodge several cubes from their calcium substrate, wrap them in injera with onion and jalapeño, and dip the whole thing into fiery awaze sauce. The pleasures of this handcrafted bite are many—a crunch of char, a succulent blast of beef, an awaze wallop, all neatly cocooned in a sour, spongy roll of injera. That’s when it suddenly hits me: Short-rib tibs are Ethiopian fajitas. The dish strikes me as further evidence of a universal culinary mind that somehow infuses cooks worldwide with the knowledge of how to turn crappy cuts of meat—whether skirt steak or short ribs—into something hot and mouthwatering.
Its source of inspiration aside, Meaza, the restaurant, clearly has a strong will to live. Zemedu reopened her place last summer after being off the grid for nearly two years, a result of her previous landlord buying out her lease to build yet another mixed-use structure. Zemedu discovered her new location quickly but had to wait for the Foot Locker’s lease to expire before taking control of the massive, 7,000-square-foot space. She then sunk a small fortune into the structure to transform it into what she calls the “largest Ethiopian restaurant in the whole United States.”
The main dining room features a bandstand, a glowing orange-colored bar, countless tables neatly arranged on several tiers, and curvy, camel-colored walls that bring to mind airport lounges and discos of a certain stretch-polyester period. The ambience doesn’t scream Ethiopia to me, but everything else does, notably that house-made injera. Meaza offers two kinds, including one made completely with teff flour, which is increasingly rare in Ethiopian eateries satisfied to serve up flatbreads produced from a combination of teff and wheat. You have to ask for the all-teff injera, otherwise you’ll get the bastardized version. You’ll know the real deal by its color: It’s as deeply bronzed as the friendly women who walk the floors as servers.
Like the teff injera, much of the menu feels designed for Ethiopians, not for the tourists, wannabes, and just plain curious who stumble around the U Street Corridor. I say this after a recent Saturday night excursion in which I invited two friends who are not shy about sticking exotic things in their mouths. And yet I had little success in drumming up interest, let alone enthusiasm, for a pair of Meaza’s more daring entrees—a dullet and a dish called kurt. Dullet is surprisingly common among local Ethiopian restaurants, a mixture of (sometimes raw) beef, lamb tripe, and lamb liver. Kurt, on the other hand, is nothing more than slabs of raw cow round served with awaze. I have seen kurt—also known as tere sega—on only one other menu, the meat-heavy one at Abay Market in Falls Church. I had to order both these dishes myself.
Almost our entire order—six entrees in all—was unceremoniously dumped onto an oversize platter of injera. Tibs were bumping against stews, which were smothering a variety of uniformly excellent vegetarian dishes circling the outer edges of the injera oval. By the time our server finished piling everything on, our platter looked like a mass grave. The only dish that merited its own plate was the kurt, whose meaty slabs were streaked with too much connective tissue, reducing these cool, spicy bites into jaw-strength exercises.
Everything else was spot on, and I mean everything, even that Ethiopian national dish known as doro wot, which I usually avoid like the Mall during national holidays. Meaza’s version, however, came in its own covered pot, which stayed on the table even after the server spooned the chicken leg and hard-boiled egg (too hard in this case, since the yolk turned green) onto the injera. The slow-simmered sauce was as dark as mole and almost as complex; I was thankful for the extra liquid left in the pot, which quickly became a dipping sauce for my injera. To my surprise, the protein in the turmeric-laced lamb kikil was as tender and moist as the chicken in the doro wat. Even the dullet, in which the diced tripe provided just enough texture, proved to be a hit at the table. None of the dish was left.
I don’t think I’m blinded by the light at this place when I say this: Meaza is the best Ethiopian restaurant in the area, bar none.
Meaza Ethiopian Cuisine and Café, 5700 Columbia Pike, Falls Church, 703-820-2870.
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