When business is slow at Salome Restaurant, on the corner of 9th and U Streets NW, Cha Tigen, a co-owner and manager, will sometimes knock back a drink or two with his customers at the bar. The conversation they strike up may touch on any number of subjects, but usually it comes around to the gentrification of the neighborhood. Tigen calls it “revitalization”—which tends to irk those who are not quite as disposed as he to embrace what they regard as a wholesale takeover.
Tigen is on safer ground when he trumpets another local transformation, taking place just south of the economic and cultural whirlwind that is the new U. There, packed into a single, bustling block, a veritable Little Ethiopia has taken root, a pocket of homeyness in the midst of so much yuppification: five full-service Ethiopian restaurants (Salome, Zula, Axum, Queen Makeda, and Sodere), with a sixth on the way; a couple of Ethiopian nightclubs and bars; and an Ethiopian market.
“It’s amazing to see,” says Tigen. “I grew up here and it still surprises me. Basically, Ethiopians are investing more in 9th Street. I ought to call [Ward 1 Councilmember] Jim Graham and see if we can get us a sign or something, like the Little Ethiopia they have in Los Angeles.”
But what’s most remarkable about these restaurants is not the quantity but the quality.
For decades, adventurous diners flocked to Adams Morgan, where Fasika’s, Meskerem, and the now-defunct Red Sea—standard-bearers for Ethiopian in a touristy, nightclubby neighborhood—were in the business of making accessible what can seem, to Western palates, an incomprehensible cuisine. But most of the best Ethiopian cooking in the city is now to be found elsewhere, where no accommodations are necessary. On 9th Street, the cooking is being done not just by Ethiopians, but, more crucially, for Ethiopians.
It started a few years ago when Dukem, at 11th and U, launched a restaurant to go along with its popular market. Sodere, which opened in May, is a spinoff, the product of two daughters and a son from that large family business. Its cooking is generally superior to Dukem’s; it may well be the best Ethiopian restaurant in town. I love the yebeg alicha, large hunks of tender, bone-in lamb, submerged in a lightly but assertively spiced, buttery stew. And the doro wat, the Ethiopian national dish, is far and away the finest I’ve ever tasted: a smooth red stew more rich, more layered, than any other in town, good even without the shreds of meat you can tear from the accompanying leg of stewed chicken. The difference between mere heat and the subtle power and complexity of spice is demonstrated in the way the flavors unfold: A bracing note of ginger yields to the tang of garlic, followed by, in swift succession, cinnamon, clove, cardamom, and, finally, a rush of red pepper.
Across an the alley from Sodere is Axum, the elder statesman of the block. Axum evokes, in a variety of ways, the Italian colonization of Ethiopia, from the languid manner of the wait staff to the many Italian-derived dishes on the menu, the best of which is a chicken cotletta topped with a tomato sauce and slices of sautéed mushroom. And there are Italian touches scattered throughout the Ethiopian menu, too—the wonderful, surprisingly light fitfit is finished with Italian dressing, and the tender yebeg tibs seems to been cooked in a thick, bubbling sugu, with strands of sauteed onion, chopped green pepper, and crushed tomato readily identifiable. The kitfo is great, a dense, purplish-red mound of minced and peppered raw beef that conveys some of the blood-born properties of a good steak.
On the other side of the street, at the 6-month-old Queen Makeda, owner Kafye conjures nothing so much as a can’t-sit-still grandmother, the kind who wants only to feed you. Best, probably, just to let her cook while you take in the farrago of smells: the mustiness of the airless front room, which gives way, in time, to incense; the stinging sweetness of frying onions; the bitterness of coffee beans roasting in a skillet. Kafye’s cabbage-and-carrots is superb. She cooks her gomen with bits of beef, calling to mind Southern-style collards. Lamb dishes are buttery, homey, and soulful, with a rusticity not evident in the more touristy places. You won’t find the bright-colored dishes of other Ethiopian restaurants here: Kafye favors long-cooked stews and tends toward berbere-based sauces. Those disinclined to clean their plates are advised to stay away (like any grandma, Kafye tends to see leftover food as a withholding of love), as are those who are squeamish; on one visit, having just set down before me a stew of tripe and carrots, she dug her fingers into it to pinch off a too-darkened patch from one of the ropy innards.
Zula, for its part, functions more as a bar and hangout than restaurant. And Salome fancies itself a lounge for the late-night international crowd—witness its emphasis on burgers and pastas and only a handful of Ethiopian specialties. But in one respect, at least, Tigen’s got all the others on the block beat: He’s the purveyor of an injera so good—thinner and darker than most, less likely to lie heavy in your gut—he sells it to stores and other restaurants around town. Including, he says, some of his fellow entrepreneurs in this up-and-coming neighborhood.
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