DC is known for its Ethiopian food and for good reason: there are probably more Ethiopian restaurants in this city than there are lame, overpriced steakhouses that K Street lobbyists frequent (THANK GOD!). But this overabundance of Ethiopian restaurants poses a conundrum: which should I eat at? Zenebech and Keren (technically Eritrean) are word-of-mouth favorites and Ethiopic is the home of bougie Ethiopian food (all are excellent). But Chercher is the lone Ethiopian restaurant on Michelin’s Bib Gourmand list, making it worth a try. I started my meal with tej (Ethiopian honey wine). I brew tej from time to time at home and have had the homemade tej from Habesha- both my home-brew and Habesha’s were significantly funkier and drier than the tej at Chercher, which I suspect is made sweeter to conform to the American palate. That said, it was tasty and Chercher does boast an impressive selection of Ethiopian wine and beer. For food, I ordered kitfo, an Ethiopian version of steak tartare that comes with a side of cheese and collard greens. It’s worth noting that kitfo (best eaten raw) is mixed with ghee, making for a very rich and heavy meal. It was delicious, but I felt overstuffed without even finishing it. Also of note, it’s not worth ordering the delux version that comes with qocho, a flatbread. A few pieces of bread is simply not worth an extra $3, especially when you’re given plenty of injera. Decor is cute, prices are fairly reasonable and the spot is date-friendly.
Chercher is located at 1334 9th St NW.
Maiwand Grill is just a few blocks away from Lapis, DC’s high-end Afghan restaurant, but it’s a world apart. Both places serve Afghan food, and I’m a huge fan of both. But Lapis is really a place to go when you’re looking to splurge a bit on a nice, sit-down dinner. Maiwand Grill, a Maryland transplant that is mainly a carryout spot with a handful of tables, has little to offer in the way of atmosphere but does serve excellent Afghan food at very affordable prices. The combos are an excellent deal; they run around the $10 range (depending which you order) and include rice, salad and Afghan naan, which is a bit like Indian naan but thicker and less fluffy. However, if you read the small print, you’ll see that most of the veggie sides can be substituted for the rice and/or the salad, meaning that you can have your lamb kabob with delicious sides of pumpkin and spinach if you’re not in the mood for (the perfectly cooked) fluffy pile of Afghan rice. Either way, you can’t really go wrong.
Maiwand Grill is located at 1764 Columbia Rd NW.
Aldeerah is the DMV area’s only Saudi restaurant. Saudi Arabia, of course, tends to make the news for its treatment of women rather than its food but the beautifully-decorated Aldeerah (think salt and pepper shakers of Saudi men and women dressed in traditional clothes) is all about celebrating Saudi food. I went on a rather quiet night (it was the middle of the week) and ordered the chicken kabsa, the national dish of Saudi Arabia which consists of chicken over rice. It was tasty and well-cooked though not bursting with flavor. My friend ordered the jareesh, a type of porridge, which she really liked though, not being a fan of cream of wheat cereal, I steered clear of that one. For dessert, we split the haysa, a sort of date and ghee pudding that was very sweet and rich- good in small doses. Service was friendly, if quiet and not super attentive.
Aldeera is located at 262 Cedar Ln, Vienna, VA.
Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe is a great concept. It is located within the National Museum of the American Indian and features menus that are supposed to reflect the native cuisines of people from various regions of the Americas, including the North Woods, the Northwest Coast, the Great Plains, Mesoamerica and South America. I went straight to the Great Plains section for a Navajo taco, which is basically a classic ground beef taco on frybread (essentially a Navajo fried dough) instead of a tortilla. The first time I tried to go to Mitsitam Cafe, over a year before this visit, they were out of frybread entirely.
This time, I waited in a long line to find out that, happily, they did have Navajo tacos though they were out of the pinto beans that would have been a tasty complement to the ground beef. I didn’t mind too much, but the vegetarian lady ahead of me was S.O.L. As I browsed the rest of the cafeteria area, I noticed that them being out of things was a bit of a theme. In the Northwest Coast section, for example, they appeared to be out of almost everything on the menu.
Then there was the issue of authenticity. While Navajo tacos don’t date back to pre-Columbian times, they have become a touchstone of Native American culture in the US. The same cannot be said for some of the food in other sections. In the Mesomerica section, the offerings didn’t go far beyond tacos and burritos and even (shudder) burrito bowls. I know that the many elements of modern Mexican food come from indigenous cooking traditions but if I wanted tacos and burritos, I’d go to Chipotle. Why not offer molé poblano or something? The situation in the South America section was even worse. They had lomo saltado on the menu, which is essentially a Peruvian take on Lo Mein from a tradition known as Chifa. Chifa is Chinese Peruvian cuisine brought to Peru by Chinese immigrants who adapted the foods of their homeland to suit the ingredients available in Peru. Chifa is a fantastic culinary tradition and one that I absolutely love. But it’s out of place in a cafe purporting to feature the foods of indigenous peoples.
When I went to check out, the chaos that seems to define Mitsitam Cafe returned. The lines for the cash registers were long, likely because only two of the four registers were staffed despite how busy the place was. And when I went to get silverware, there was not a metal fork in sight so I went for the plastic utensils.
To sum it up, this place is a great idea but really needs to work on its execution and authenticity.