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Exploring The Flavors of Little Ethiopia: Part I

From Chelsea Rinnig. Email her at chelsea[AT]borderstan.com. 

Ethiopia is 60 percent Ethiopian Orthodox Christian — a religion that requires its members to fast quite often, including most Wednesday and Fridays and sometimes for weeks at a time before holidays.

The thought of refraining from meat, dairy, eggs and sex may cause some to hark back to Billy Crystal’s famously and probably insensitive joke from the classic When Harry Met Sally: “Hey, I didn’t know that they had food in Ethiopia. This will be a quick meal. I’ll order two empty plates and we can leave!”

At the blending of U Street and Shaw neighborhoods, however, Ethiopian food overflows platters and plates 24/7. Classics like Dukem are mainstays of the neighborhood and considered a must on the DC eating bucket list. While others, like Lalibela or Habesha Market quietly nestle between storefronts.

Part I profiles the famous Ethiopian of the District while Part II explores the lesser-known stores that hopefully outlast gentrification—as their authenticity brings us another kind of unique culinary experience. Just make sure you and your friends have washed your hands first!

"Ethiopia"Dukem Restaurant at 12th and U streets has for years topped the city’s “Best Of” lists and receives the highest accolades and reviews. Its outdoor patio overlooks the bustling U Street bar scene while its next-door mini mart offers quick take-out and a small selection of grains and spices. Dukem is a great setting for a larger party, and two platters provides plenty of food for a group of six-to-eight.

I recommend the beef tibs as an addition to a spicy platter—served on top of the edible placemat “injera” are “wots,” or stews, of a variety of meat and vegetable tastings. Dukem also offers vegetarian platters as well as a mild option for the more sensitive diners. I personally do not have the palate for the sweet honey wine called “Tej,” but the verdict is that it is the perfect complement to authenticate the experience.

3 of My Favorites

"Ethiopia"Etete Restaurant around the corner at 9th and U streets is equally as good as Dukem to me and priced similarly to Dukem. The sambusas are larger though and delicious – a must try – and the vegetarian platter is incredible. An add-on of Tegabino Shiro is a wonderful addition poured into the center of the various wots and rounds out a meat-free meal with a smoky taste.

I will caution though that the wines are quite expensive compared to the price of the food itself, and a store-bought cheap bottle easily runs up the tab on what would have been a relatively inexpensive meal. Etete’s two floors give it plenty of space though, with no need for reservations while maintaining a more intimate experience.

"Ethiopia"Habesha Market across the street is the least known of the three and may be my favorite, as it embodies the whole experience of the food itself. The front end of the market is positioned similar to a typical carry out. However, the back end contains not only wall-to-wall shelves of dried grains, injera and other specialty products, but a full view into the kitchen.

True, it makes the food itself appear a bit more like it’s coming out of a cafeteria lunch-line, but the smell and the price are savory enough to overlook the details. A full Doro Wat of six vegetarian choices costs less than $10, leaving you extra money to buy a beer or two right there (the market has a liquor license). Rumor told me that the owner is a sibling of the owner at Dukem, so one has to trust a good family recipe at a fraction of the price!

Next week, I will profile three more Ethiopian restaurants as well as provide a fuller background of Ethiopian culinary tradition.

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- who has written 45 posts on Borderstan.

Rinnig moved to Borderstan in Fall 2011 from Baltimore and hails originally from Los Angeles. Her dedication to the local food movement and commitment to eating simply and nutritiously have led her to both develop her culinary skills and write about her tasting new dishes both in her new city as well as her own kitchen. You can find Rinnig working downtown on weekdays, selling stone fruits and berries at the Dupont Farmers market on Sundays and splurging at fine restaurants here and there in-between. Email her at chelsea[AT]borderstan.com.

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