Restaurant Review - A Taste of Ethiopia: Unique Vegetarian Dining in El Cerrito
By Vickie Lewis
West Contra Costa County is indeed rich with diversity, and as a result, there is no shortage of wonderful authentic restaurants for hungry patrons to choose from when deciding to dine out.
There are numerous Mexican and Latin American venues, as well as many Asian options—including Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, and Korean. There are also quite a few Mediterranean, Indian, and Pakistani restaurants in the area. But one restaurant stands out as unique among others in this area—A Taste of Ethiopia. This traditional Ethiopian restaurant located in El Cerrito serves authentic dishes and drinks and proudly introduces customers to Ethiopian hospitality. A Taste of Ethiopia restaurant is also unique in that it currently offers an all vegetarian and gluten free menu!
Ethiopia is a country in northeastern Africa which is often referred to as the Horn of Africa. It is a country rich in tribal culture and cuisines. A Taste of Ethiopia restaurant recently celebrated its fourth anniversary on February 15th. Owner Tsege Tamene, a native of Ethiopia who has been a resident of California for twenty-seven years, opened the restaurant in 2015 while she was working as a Pharmacy Technician for Kaiser in Oakland. Prior to opening the restaurant, Tsege did catering for friends and family for many years. Everyone loved her cooking and food so much that they encouraged her to open a restaurant to share her talents and flair for Ethiopian cooking. Although she’d never owned and operated a restaurant before, her passion for cooking led her to pursue their suggestion. Now, four years later, the restaurant is continuing to attract quite a following of regular customers, as well as many new customers seeking a new dining experience. Tsege spent 15 years working as a Pharmacy technician, but is now totally dedicated to the restaurant and serving her customers.
The restaurant is located on San Pablo Avenue in a commercial “strip mall” near the Del Norte El Cerrito Bart station, which appears to have residential units on the upper floors. Neighboring eateries include Uncle Wong’s Chinese Restaurant, Gangnam Tofu Korean Restaurant, and Strings Italian Restaurant.
Although there is a large parking area, I found parking to be a challenge on our Wednesday night visit; however, there is also street parking available. The restaurant is small and intimate, with table seating for about 30 to 35 people at maximum capacity. The dining area has eight tables, the tops of which are decorated with colorful scenes of Ethiopia. Atop some tables, there were large colorful woven baskets with tall pointed lids, which I learned are called “mesobs.” I was told that the tabletop mesobs are used to serve food in the Ethiopian tradition. There were also two taller mesobs in the restaurant which sat on the floor and were encircled by small wood-carved chairs. I learned that these taller versions are often used as tables in Ethiopia and everyone sits around the mesob to partake of their food. Wall decorations included woven basketry, a few animal carvings, and traditional folk-art drawings on goat skins. A television set mounted high on one wall continuously showed video of Ethiopian native people dancing, singing and playing traditional music, which added to the authenticity of the dining experience.
When my guest and I arrived at A Taste of Ethiopia, we were greeted by a young woman named Tigist who informed us that she is Tsege’s sister. That evening, she and her husband, Bezu, were assisting at the restaurant. Bezu served us water, leaving a carafe on the table, and provided us with menus. I knew before arriving that the menu was strictly vegetarian, but really had no idea kinds of entrees and appetizers to expect. My guest, who is an avid meat eater, was skeptical about the entire experience, but was none-the-less willing to accompany me for the review and give the food a try.
The front of the food menu listed six appetizer selections priced between $6 - $8, and the back of the menu listed about a dozen vegetarian entrees priced at $9 - $13. Each item was first listed by its Ethiopian name, followed by an English description of the ingredients in the dish. The front of the menu also offered a Vegetarian Combination Meal for $15 which included servings of 5 different entrees, salad, and Buticha (Chick pea powder cooked and mixed with onion, garlic, green peppers, and other herbs and spices (Ethiopian hummus)) and Azifa (whole brown lentils).
When Bezu returned to take our order, we asked if the combo meal would be enough to split between me and my guest. He acknowledged that it would be, so we ordered the combo, thinking we could select the five entrées we wanted to try from the reverse of the menu. However, that was not the case—the five entrees were pre-selected for us. I requested a bowl of Lentil soup, but was told they were out if it that evening. Somewhat disappointed, I selected an alternative appetizer—the Sambusas. Sambusas are lentils wrapped in a crusted pastry dough seasoned with diced onions, garlic, jalapeno peppers, herbs and spices, fried in a vegetable oil. Although I’d never eaten these before, I assumed I would like them since I enjoy eating lentils. My guest also ordered an additional entrée, as he’d decided that he really wanted to try the Dinich Wot--spicy potatoes flavored with herbs and spices.
As we waited for our food, we reviewed the separate drink menu that had been provided. The drinks available included four imported Ethiopian beers, Ethiopian Honey Wine, traditional coffee and Buna be Jebena (clay pot coffee), Ethiopian teas, sparkling Perrier water, and several juices. The Honey Wine is a traditional Ethiopian drink that is made from raw honey and tastes very sweet. Although I did not order a glass, I did get the opportunity to taste it later in the evening. I found it to be very delicious and appealing, even though I do not typically drink much wine. Although there were several good drink choices, my guest and I opted to just drink water with our meal.
Our combo platter was delivered to our table within just a few minutes. It was served on a round metal pizza pan, lined with what I learned was injera—a type of Ethiopian sourdough-risen flatbread with a spongy texture that is brownish-grey in color. Small portions of each of the five entrees were colorfully displayed on the pan, accompanied by a serving of fresh green salad topped with delicious vinaigrette dressing, and servings of the Buticha and Azifa, as promised. We were also served a basket with several additional pieces of injera rolled up neatly like napkins. I wasn’t sure what to do with the injera at first, so I asked and was told that we were supposed to wrap small amounts of the food in small pieces of the injera using our hands, and then eat it together. While the prospect of using our hands to wrap the food in the injera was somewhat intriguing, we opted to take forks when they were offered to us!
My guest preferred not to try to injera, so he proceeded to eat bites of food using his fork. I, however, did try the injera, wrapping several bites of the different entrees and eating them as instructed. But my initial reaction was that the injera didn’t have much flavor, and I wasn’t exceptionally fond of the spongy texture. I decided to eat the rest of my meal like my guest, using just the fork. With each bite I took, I tried to discern which entrée sample I was eating. Some were easier to identify than others. Our platter included the following entrees: Yesmir wot—split lentils simmered in berbere (ground red semi-spicy chili peppers mixed with upwards of 20 herbs and spices); garlic, ginger and a blend of Ethiopian herbs and spices; Matakite wot—steamed cabbage and carrots seasoned with herbs, onion, garlic and ginger; Ater kik alecha wot—yellow split peas prepared with onion, ginger, garlic and turmeric; Gomen—collard greens sautéed in onions and other spices; Dinich Wot—spicy potatoes flavored with herbs and spices. As we were indulging in the items on our combo platter, the separate Dinich wot (spicy potato entrée) was served with a generous mound of spicy potatoes accompanied by an equally generous portion of green salad, and more servings of injera.
As you may have surmised from the descriptions of the food ingredients, the essence of Ethiopian cooking lies in the spices. Exotic spices and fresh herbs are combined to create delicious and unique flavors. Although the food wasn’t exceptionally “hot” from the spiciness, it certainly was spicy enough to make my nose run extensively! After several bites, it was hard to discern which of the foods was more spicy than another. I was glad that we had chosen to drink water with our meal, as that countered some of the spiciness. My guest quite enjoyed the spicy potatoes, the salad, and the cabbage and carrots. I enjoyed these items also, but also found the red lentils and the split peas to be very delicious.
At the end of our meal, the Sambusas appetizer was finally served. Tigist offered apologies for the extreme delay. She was the primary cook during that evening, and she had been busy preparing orders for the several in-house diners as well as a couple of take-out orders. The Sambusas are hand made to order and take a bit longer to make. The finished appetizer consisted of two triangular golden brown, plump puff pastries, accompanied by a small dish of red dipping sauce. Even though I was quite full, I couldn’t resist eating one of the hot sambusas. It was so delicious, it is hard to describe. The pastry was flaky and light and had an excellent taste. The sambusa was totally filled with the lentil mixture and the flavor of this was also delightful! The dipping sauce was made from red chilis and had a very appealing and slightly tangy taste, but was not overly spicy! I would highly recommend ordering the sambusas when you visit A Taste of Ethiopia!
To end our meal, we decided to order from the three desserts offered on the menu: Baklava, Vegan Chocolate Cake, and Gluten-free Teff (a fine Ethiopian grain) cake. The Baklava and Chocolate cake desserts are the only thing that is not made from scratch at A Taste of Ethiopia. Unfortunately, they did not have either the Baklava or the Teff Cake available that evening, so my guest and I shared a piece of the vegan chocolate cake. To go with the cake, I ordered the Buna be Jebena. Tigist made the coffee and served it in the traditional clay pot, accompanied by a small jar of white sugar, and a round cup without a handle. The coffee was very good—not as hot as I typically like it—but it had a very good flavor. The liquid seemed a bit thicker than coffee usually is, and I detected a slight taste of cinnamon and cloves. The chocolate cake didn’t taste very different from other chocolate cakes—perhaps just a tad less moist, but still very delicious!
Toward the end of our visit, Tsege arrived at the restaurant and we had a chance to visit with her for a short time before we left. We shared our dining experience with her, and she was surprised to hear that we didn’t care for the injera. She went to the kitchen and brought out a roll of injera and asked us to taste it plain. We both tried it and surprisingly, it tasted very much like sour dough bread! When I’d eaten it earlier, I didn’t detect the sourdough taste. Tsege explained that she makes the only gluten free injera in the area and it is very popular with customers. Is made fresh every day at the restaurant. Tsege explained that injera is made from a starter, much like sour dough bread, and that it ferments for 3 – 5 days before it is ready. She also explained that it is important to eat Ethiopian food with the injera as it enhances the food flavors. The spongy texture is perfect for sopping up sauces, stews and other wet dishes that are prevalent in Ethiopian cuisine. I promised that the next time I dine there, I will enjoy my food together with the injera!
Tsege shared that that the restaurant has only offered the exclusively vegetarian menu since August 2018. Earlier menus also included meat dishes, and there are still many customers who would like to have the meat dishes be added back to the menu. Tsege is considering adding some meat entrees back onto the menu in the future. She loves her customers and wants to please them. She has gotten to know many of the repeat customers by name, and even knows their usual orders! Tigist and Bezu work with Tsege regularly at the restaurant, as well as a few other family members and close family friends. Tigist and Tsege do much of the cooking themselves, so when you dine at A Taste of Ethiopia, you can be assured that you are getting an authentic dining experience. Not only will you enjoy delightful cuisine, but you will be exposed to genuine Ethiopian hospitality. Next time you’re looking for a unique dining experience, and/or a menu with plenty of vegetarian selections, visit A Taste of Ethiopia. Tsege offers loyalty cards for repeat customers, so be sure to get yours when you visit, as I’m sure you’ll want to return again and again!
11740 San Pablo Avenue, El Cerrito | (510) 778-1905 | FB: @tasteofethiopiaelcerrito | Door Dash or Grub Hub | Open Tuesday through Saturday - 12:00 PM – 3:00 PM, 5:00 PM – 9:00 PM | Closed Sunday & Monday