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Few cuisines are as review-proof as Ethiopian—which is why critiquing an Ethiopian restaurant is sort of like critiquing sex. Great Ethiopian is wonderful, and if you’re lucky enough to stumble upon it your first time, you’re likely in for one of those palate-broadening events that forever change the way you think about food. But even thoroughly ordinary Ethiopian is still not half-bad, because of all the extragustatory satisfactions to be had in breaking bread with a tableful of friends, sharing from the same large platter, and scooping up your meal with your bare hands—a welcome reminder that eating can be both terribly civilized and intensely primal at the same time.
It’s no shame, then, to say that Langano Ethiopian in Silver Spring belongs firmly to the not-half-bad category. I’d even be willing to guess that the owners and staff might actually look upon this as a point of pride. They have, after all, succeeded in putting their meals into the proper context, one in which the food is simply another variable in the larger equation of creating a relaxed, communal vibe.
Not that this relaxed, communal vibe is immediately evident. Glancing around the restaurant for the first time, you’d be hard put to imagine that a place so sparse-looking could deliver such comforts. Aside from the relatively lavish bar, above which the owners have hung a couple of large, wistful paintings of the Ethiopian lake from which the restaurant derives its name, the place has a half-finished feel that is unlikely to become more finished. Bare walls, a TV on a metal cart, a few wayward-looking plants, a string or two of lights. And yet there is atmosphere aplenty here.
A lot of this has to do with the unforced hospitality of the staff. The waitresses are friendly and gracious, and no one is eager to rush you out the door. On a recent Thursday night, a few friends and I lingered for more than three hours, drinking our beers, bullshitting above the sounds of some decent live jazz, and picking at the Rorschach-like remains of our stew-soaked platter. Nearby, the bar grew crowded with Ethiopian emigres who’d come in search of pretty much the same thing, only more so: a little drink, a little conversation, a little taste of home. In no time at all, the restaurant had the feel of an intimate private party. I hated to leave.
As befitting a place that aspires to be a kind of home away from home for local Ethiopians—and a trusty neighborhood restaurant for the rest of us—the kitchen has wisely kept its repertoire to a minimum. The one-page menu lists only 16 entrees, and there’s little variety or surprise to be found among them. This isn’t the place to go for a whole crispy fish, for example—a staple item at many of the larger Ethiopian restaurants downtown. Nor is it your destination if what you crave most about Ethiopian food is the hot, peppery kick that lingers long after the first couple of bites and leaves your insides practically vibrating. Not everything here lacks heat, but on the whole these dishes are far more accessible than they are assertive.
There’s something to be said, of course, for any restaurant that endeavors to stick to the basics. The doro wat, which might as well be Ethiopia’s national dish, comes with a chicken leg that’s falling-off-the-bone tender—you’ll have a harder time cutting up the accompanying hard-boiled egg to stuff into your torn-off bits of injera, the yeasty, spongy flatbread that resembles an oversized pancake rolled into a dinner napkin. (By the way, all injera may look alike, but they don’t all taste alike, and a pronounceable sourness to the bread is as essential to a good injera as its airiness. Crucially, Langano satisfies on both counts.) But the harissa, the red-chili-based sauce that is the focal point of the dish, though almost buttery in texture, lacks the kick of more nuanced versions. This isn’t, it should be noted, a complaint from someone who’d like to see more heat for heat’s sake; something really is needed to cut through all that oily richness.
On the other hand, my three tablemates scooped up the entire mound of stew in a matter of minutes, a soothing balm for a brutally cold midweek night. Yebeg alicha, a dish of underseasoned lamb chunks with green peppers and onions, disappeared almost as quickly. The yebeg kilil, a variation of the same minus the peppers and onions, prompted a near-unanimous chorus of nitpicking at first bite—”too bland,” “not enough going on”—but it vanished, as well, and I couldn’t help but marvel at the swiftness with which the retaining wall we erect between our refined palates and our mostly undiscriminating stomachs always seems to crumble in the presence of inviting, straightforward cooking like this.
If the meat-based dishes work because of their stick-to-your-ribs quality, the same cannot be said for the vegetarian options, which are merely rich or buttery without the sharpness or complexity that more subtle cooking offers. The vegetarian plate, which offers a chance to sample a variety of dishes at once, is a particular disappointment: The vegetables in the stew of potatoes, green beans, and carrots are too cooked-out to determine if they were ever fresh to begin with (though I have serious doubts about both the beans and the carrots), and the obligatory salad is a limp, gray afterthought. Indeed, the only vegetable dishes you should even consider ordering here are the misir wat and the kik alicha—two varieties of lentil stew—and they can be ordered separately.
This isn’t good news for vegetarians, and even for carnivores it’s a disappointment, because it further shrinks an already small menu. The trick here is to find a few dishes you really like and stick with them. At the top of my own shortlist is the kitfo, a beef tartare composed of equal parts chopped raw beef, chopped kale, and a salty homemade cheese. The flavors are clean, nothing runs together, and the whole thing manages to be hearty without also being heavy. Friends of mine are crazy about the tibs special, a dish of lamb in a red-wine sauce, and they order it every time. I’m not nearly as elated with it, however: I found the cubes of meat to be a little dry and the wine sauce to lack the pungency I’d counted on. I’m willing to concede the dish as a casualty of raised expectations, but I can’t ignore another, equally real possibility—that the tibs is simply a casualty of an inconsistent kitchen. Still, the fact that the prices are, by the area’s inflated standards, unspeakably cheap (the most expensive entree is just $9.50, and many are a lot less) means that you should feel free to roam among your options without constraint.
Amid a downtown that is undergoing a Plasticine makeover—a Fresh Fields has sprung up a few blocks away, with a Borders and an Austin Grill still to come—Langano seems an unlikely newcomer, an echo of a soon-to-be bygone era. Its larger, glossier cousins may hold the key to urban revival, but here’s hoping there’s room in the new, improved Silver Spring for the sort of unassuming restaurant the neighborhood so desperately needs.
Langano Ethiopian, 8305 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, Md. (301) 563-6700.—Todd Kliman
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