Ethnicity Lights

Lalibela Ethiopian Restaurant, 8946 North 19th Avenue, Phoenix, 870-4555. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 9 p.m.

How can you tell if a city is booming?
If you're a developer, you count the number of new-home starts. If you're a demographer, you track population growth. If you're an economist, you look at the unemployment rate.

And if you're a restaurant reviewer, you survey the ethnic dining scene.
I don't need real estate figures, government statistics or Arizona State University reports to convince me that the Valley is growing at an explosive rate. I can tell from the variety of exotic ethnic restaurants that have been opening for business. In just the past two years, for example, both Laotian and Philippine fare have been added to the Valley's ethnic mix.

Now, two more cuisines from far-off lands have landed in our corner of the desert Southwest. Both may give skittish natives a few moments' pause, at least initially. After all, most of us aren't used to eating with our hands, or watching grilled chicken hearts get peeled off a skewer. But the Ethiopian dishes at Lalibela and the Brazilian rodizio at Rio Brazilian Steak House provide us with a risk-free way to explore the world's fare without worrying about jet lag, visas or vaccinations.

Lalibela is named after an ancient Ethiopian capital, site of a magnificent church carved below ground out of granite. However, the restaurant still hasn't quite stripped away all the traces of the previous tenant, a Mexican place. Ethiopian Tourist Board posters help. So does music from the homeland, spilling softly over the sound system. Stylized scenes of the story of Solomon and Sheba (she was an Ethiopian queen) hang from the walls, painted on skins. And coarsely woven cloth embroidered with brightly colored geometric designs adorn glass-topped tables.

If these audio and visual cues don't furnish enough hints about what's coming, the table setting surely will. It's not what you see, it's what you don't see--silverware. Like most Africans, Ethiopians eat with their hands. You won't see much chinaware, either. That's because diners eat off communal platters.

But what sets Ethiopians apart from their neighbors is how they scoop up dinner. Elsewhere, Africans use grains like rice or millet as a vehicle for their meats and sauces. In west Africa, for example, you squeeze the grain and toppings into a tight ball and then flick it into your mouth with the top of your fingers. But Ethiopians rely on injera to wrap and transport their food. It's a thin, spongy, slightly sour bread that looks like what would result if you mated a tortilla with a crepe.

The communal platter, a large round tray, comes lined with injera and covered with small mounds of whatever dishes you order. But before you dig in, take note of communal dining etiquette. If, for instance, three of you are sharing dinner, mentally divide each dish your group ordered into thirds. Don't stray into someone else's territory, even if there's something that's caught your eye. It's considered piggish. And use your right, "clean" hand to pick up your food. That's because in much of Africa, the left hand is used for purposes you don't want to talk about at the dinner table.

For the most part, Ethiopian food isn't as wildly exotic as you might suspect. Lalibela's small menu offers stews of meat, fowl and vegetables called wat. What is unique, though, are the highly seasoned sauces, fragrant but almost never too spicy hot.

African cuisine doesn't recognize the concept of "appetizers." So don't look for much in the way of premeal nibbles at Lalibela. But if you'd like to get under way by blowing off the roof of your mouth, you could munch seneg. They're fiery whole chile peppers stuffed with fiery chopped jalapenos, onions and tomatoes. Unless you have asbestos lips, I'd counsel discretion.

You're best off diving right into the communal platter. Try doro wat, an Ethiopian staple. You'll get a piece of chicken on the bone, cooked in spiced butter and moistened by a lusty berbere sauce fashioned from mild red chiles and a rackful of spices. It comes with hard-boiled egg, a traditional part of the presentation. Sega wat is quite similar, except it relies on tender cubes of beef instead of poultry.

Alicha sega wat features the same beef cubes, but this time they come bathed in a rich, currylike sauce scented with turmeric. Yebeg sega tibs, a weekend special, gives you an opportunity to sample lamb, bite-size pieces pan-fried with green pepper and onions. Dip the lamb into awaze, a potent red pepper sauce that reminds me of harissa, a hot pepper condiment used in north Africa as an accompaniment to couscous.

And for true adventurers, the kitchen offers kitfo, finely chopped raw ground beef mixed with butter and infused with cardamom. Unless you were born in Addis Ababa, be aware that this dish requires a certain degree of gastronomic adaptability.

Lalibela's meatless specialties should make vegetarians happy no matter where they were born. Misr wat blends red lentils into the same berbere sauce that zips up the meat dishes.

Gomen is Ethiopian soul food--chopped collard greens cooked with mild green pepper and onions. Fosolia teams green beans with carrots and onions. But my favorite veggie entree is tikil gomen, an unusually tasty blend of cabbage, carrots and potatoes. The price is right on these vegetarian dishes, too--you'll get change back from a five.

However, experienced diners will note one missing element to the meal: tej. It's a sweet, native honey wine that's particularly suited to this fare. The proprietors say they'll offer it in the near future. In the meantime, a cold beer makes a decent beverage substitute.

A place like Lalibela may not seem like a big deal in this hustling, bustling town. It doesn't have the impact of a new freeway, a new shopping mall, a new high-tech plant or a new baseball team. But new ethnic restaurants do play an important urban role: They make the Valley a more interesting place to live. To me, that's not only change; it's progress.

Rio Brazilian Steak House, 10425 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 948-7796. Hours: Dinner, 5 p.m. to close, seven days a week.

Rio Brazilian is not the first Brazilian restaurant in the city. (Cafe Brazil arrived about 18 months ago.) But it is the first to offer rodizio, a nonstop, nine-course, all-you-can-eat meat fest featuring marinated, skewered, mesquite-grilled beef, pork, lamb and poultry. If you're looking to get your cholesterol level up for your physical tomorrow, Rio Brazilian Steak House is where you want to eat tonight.

It's a big restaurant, almost cavernous, divided into two rooms decked out in green and yellow, the national colors. Lots of fake palms and South American flute music add appropriate tropical touches.

The meal starts with a trip to the all-you-can-eat salad bar. Tread lightly among the undistinguished greenery, marinated mushrooms, pasta salads, grilled veggies, chickpeas and potato salad--you've got a mountain of food still to come.

Rodizio is extremely labor intensive. The server has to make endless trips to the table, each time bearing a metal skewer in one hand and a huge knife and tongs in the other. In principle, said our waiter, he's supposed to carve the meat until it hangs to the skewer by just a thread, then pull the piece off with the tongs. In reality, that took so much time and effort that he asked our permission to shave the meats directly onto our plates.

It's hard to believe anyone in Brazil could possibly suffer from protein deficiency. First up to the plate is homemade sausage, mild and moist, which will whet your appetite and pique your interest. Then comes chicken, legs and thighs crisply grilled on the outside, juicy inside. In what seems to be a natural progression, chicken hearts follow. Many diners pass up this course, our waiter admitted, but I found the critters quite tasty, a bit like liver but somewhat more chewy.

Batting cleanup is tri-tip, a reasonably tender cut that sports lots of beefy flavor. Turkey wrapped in bacon shows up next, but it's a bit of a snooze. The turkey seemed a bit dried out, which can happen if it's spent too much time rotating over hot coals.

Pork tenderloin, the next arrival, is one of the better courses. It's got a wonderful, crispy edge, and the meat is tender, juicy and fragrant. The following pork dish, baby-back ribs, isn't nearly as entertaining. They were fatty and relatively dull. Course number eight is "young lamb." (I wondered if there's such a thing as "old lamb.") It's not exactly gristle-free, but the taste makes it easier to put up with.

The final course is the best: top sirloin, a lovely hunk of steak that has the power to make you glad you're a meat eater even after you've just waded through eight servings of animal protein.

In case nine courses of meat leave you with some appetite cracks, the six side dishes that come with dinner will help you patch them. You'll find potatoes, rice, fried polenta, green beans, fried bananas and farofa, manioc ground into a powder that bears an uncanny resemblance to sawdust.

Unless you have a highly trained, professional belly like mine, desserts are probably out of the question. Too bad. Fried bananas in caramel sauce, tinged with banana liqueur and oranges, are sweet enough to throw the unwary into insulin shock. But they're irresistible. Even better is quindin, a remarkable treat with the taste and texture of a lusciously thick coconut flan.

If the rodizio seems too imposing, there are alternatives. Feijoada (pronounced feh-zhwa-da) is the Brazilian national dish, masses of pork served with rice, beans and collard greens. You can also order grilled chicken, shrimp scampi, pork chops or a porterhouse steak--"American dishes," the proprietor explained. Why you'd come here for them, however, is a question I can't answer.

Mainstream tastes will never go hungry in Phoenix. But with Lalibela and Rio Brazilian Steak House in town, those of us who like to wander around the culinary edges now have more reason than ever to be grateful.


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