DC is rightly known for its Ethiopian food and Letena offers a new model for Ethiopian food: a bright fast-casual restaurant where you order at the counter, you take a number and the food is brought to your table. Mercifully, Letena avoids the “bowl” phenomenon that is rampant at other fast casual places like Cava and ShopHouse, where great cuisines are bastardized by throwing a bunch of ingredients into a bowl. Fortunately, Letena serves actual Ethiopian dishes, including kitfo, which is one of my favorites. Kitfo is the Ethiopian version of steak tartare (or is steak tartare the French version of Kitfo?) Either way, kitfo is a mound of raw beef that is deliciously seasoned and served on top of injera bread. Letena’s kitfo was massive and made for an indulgent feast that is a carnivore’s dream. I have to admit I get a sort of primal joy out of eating raw meat. Friendly service rounded out what was a solid dining experience. My only gripe is that I wish they served alcohol, like tej (Ethiopian honey wine) and Ethiopian beer.
Letena is located at 3100 14th St NW (though physically on Park Road) in Columbia Heights.
The DC area is known for its profusion of Ethiopian spots, including markets, restaurants and coffee shops, but what makes Dama Pastry and Cafe (a market, restaurant and coffee shop all rolled into one) especially interesting is that you can sample Ethiopian pastries there. Ethiopia doesn’t really have much in the way of desserts, aside from Italian imports like tiramisu, but Ethiopia does have some breakfast pastries (which also appear to be Italian in origin, but which Ethiopians have made there own). At Dama Pastry and Cafe you can enjoy a delicious coffee while gorging yourself on a large Ethiopian-style bombolonas (donut of Italian origin) or Ethiopian fried dough called pasti. The bombolonas is tasty, but only lightly sweet.
Dama Pastry and Cafe is located at 1505 Columbia Pike in Foxcroft Heights, Arlington.
Ethiopic is an upscale Ethiopian restaurant located at 401 H Street NE. Those critical of Ethiopic might point to its higher price point than most Ethiopian spots in DC and argue that you’re paying mainly for the ambiance. There is some truth to this; the ambiance is lovely with dim lighting and Ethiopic script on the walls. Unlike a place like Zenebech, it makes a romantic spot for a date (the messiness of Ethiopian food aside) and you can certainly get great quality food for a cheaper price at a place like Zenebech.
But Ethiopic‘s high-end character makes for a very worthwhile dining experience that goes far beyond the chic decor. While other reviewers of Ethiopic have griped about inconsistent service, my table’s server was attentive, friendly and helpful. The meal begins with a tasty wheat bread with a hot pepper and olive oil dipping sauce, and the drinks list is particularly extensive; while most Ethiopian spots in DC only offer St. George Lager, Ethiopic offers a list of several different Ethiopian beers, though only some were available when I went. There are also several Ethiopian wines plus tej, a Ethiopian honey wine fermented with powdered leaves and twigs of the gesho plant, which acts a bit like hops and lends a funkiness to the beverage. Unsurprisingly, this funkiness is not always well-received by American palates, so Ethiopic’s tej is sweet and very approachable. I personally prefer the funkier home brew at Habesha Market and Carry-out, but Ethiopic’s tej does make a pleasant accompaniment to spicy Ethiopian food, if the sweetness doesn’t bother you.
Kitfo- Ethiopian beef tartare.
The full richness of Ethiopian food can’t be experienced without trying both meat and veggie dishes, but Ethiopic doesn’t offer mixed meat and veggie combos for some reason. As such, it is best to come here with a group and eat family style. We ordered a vegetarian combo, lamb tibs and kitfo, which is Ethiopian beef tartare served with a little cottage cheese and collard greens. The veggies were all delicious but the lamb, while very flavorful, was a little on the tough side. The kitfo, however, was fantastic and wouldn’t be something I’d feel comfortable eating at a place that wasn’t a bit upscale. Overall, Ethiopic is great- the atmosphere is great and while the food in general is similar what you’ll find at excellent hole in the wall places, you’ll find food and drink options here that you won’t find elsewhere.
Zenebech Restaurant is an Ethiopian Restaurant located at 608 T Street NW. Unlike nearby Dukem, it makes no attempt to look even remotely upscale (Dukem largely fails at this anyway). I like that, though, because their prices are are reasonable and their injera is excellent. Against my better judgement, I ordered the Awaze Tibs with lamb, which is spicy. I don’t mind some spice, but super spicy food does me in. It as tasty though, and the waiter gave me fair warning that it was spicy. What I liked best about Zenebech, however, was the drinks menu. They had several kinds of Ethiopian beer as well as Tej by the glass. Tej, for the uninitiated, is an ancient Ethiopian honey wine (mead) that according to legend was the beverage that King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba toasted with. It is made with a special Ethiopian hop-like herb called gesho. Apparently, every Tej is different and some can taste rather funky. The Tej at Zenebech, however, was very pleasant and floral. It inspired me to pick up a sketchy bottle of Tej put in a reused one-liter soda bottle at Habesha Market and Carry-Out later that day to bring to a friend’s birthday party- it was a hit!
Dukem is an Ethiopian restaurant located at 1114-1118 U St NW. It serves up a wide variety of tasty Ethiopian food (like Keren, it has Ethiopian breakfast food like fuul in addition to injera platters). I ordered a delicious combination platter, but be aware that it’s not the cheapest place out there. You’re likely to pay $15 for your entree, which isn’t bad, but this is not a divey cheap place. I also ordered a St. George beer, which is an Ethiopian lager. It’s cool for the novelty of drinking Ethiopian beer (and it comes in a cool-looking bottle decorated with a picture of St. George slaying the dragon) but it’s otherwise a fairly average lager. Basically this is a solid spot for a large menu of tasty Ethiopian food, but it’s a full mid-range restaurant, not a hole in the wall.
Sidamo is an Ethiopian coffee shop located at 417 H St NE right next to the 3rd Street stop on the DC Streetcar. The streetcar itself may be little more than a novelty, but Sidamo is a true winner. They serve single-origin Ethiopian pour-overs (sidamo, yergacheffe, harrar) and the very kind Ethiopian owner is keen to explain the rich history of coffee in Ethiopia. They also serve the usual variety of espresso drinks as well as loose-leaf tea. The “Sidamo Chai Leben” is particularly tasty. A highlight of Sidamo is their weekly traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony at 2 pm every Sunday (which you can’t get to by streetcar since the streetcar doesn’t run on Sundays). An Ethiopia lady in traditional garments roasts beans in a skillet over an open flame while burning fragrant incense. She then prepares the coffee in a traditional pot and they serve samples in demitasses to guests. The very friendly owner offered patrons samples of spiced clarified butter, which some Ethiopian tribes take in their coffee instead of sugar. Atmospheric Ethiopian music plays in the background. Seating can be tight at times, but this place is a must for the great coffee, friendly people, and unique cultural experience.
Harrar Coffee & Roastery is an Ethiopian coffee shop located at 2904 Georgia Ave NW. Harrar takes great pride in presenting a wide variety of Ethiopian coffees to customers- it even offers little cups so that customers can taste their coffees for free. They’re not about pour-overs or loose-leaf teas (they serve Tazo) and their espresso drinks menu is confined to the standards. It has WiFi, outlets, and tables, but the mood is more storefront than cozy. The vibe is pleasant, though, as a result of the friendly staff and beautiful pictures of Ethiopia. They also serve delicious, mildly spicy lentil sambusas, which are a nice change from the
So many to sample!
scones and cookies available at most other coffee shops in the city. If you are looking for a scene, you’re better off at Maketto or Colony Club. If you’re looking for pour-overs, you’re better off at Qualia Coffee. But if you want to experience a slice of Ethiopian culture (many of the customers are also Ethiopians, which means the coffee is authentic) and something a bit more interesting than the standard independent coffee shop, head to Harrar!
A tasty Ethiopian sambusa!
A tasty injera plate.
Keren Restaurant is an Eritrean restaurant (Eritrean and Ethiopian food are essentially the same; they were once one country) located at 1780 Florida Ave NW right on the border of the Dupont area and Adams Morgan. In a city full of Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurants, Keren offers the same perennially popular injera platters and beef tibsy, but they seem to be particularly tasty at Keren. But what distinguishes Keren from many other Ethiopian/Eritrean places is that it also has an array of Eritrean breakfast items, which mainly center around fuul (warm fava beans- also highly popular in the Middle East) and eggs. Fuul with eggs and injera (you can add meat as
A hearty breakfast of fuul, eggs, injera and salad.
well) makes for a satisfying breakfast with an East African twist. Don’t worry if you’re not a morning person; Keren’s breakfast items are available all day, which also makes it an option for brunch for those looking for something a bit different. Tasty Eritrean tea is also available. The service is friendly and prices are very reasonable- breakfast dishes start at $5 and an injera platter with beef tibsi is only $8.63. I once went on a date here with an absolute psychopath, but that fortunately didn’t color my view of Keren– this place is great.