Cafe Reviews

Ethiopian Famous Restaurant & Coffee's Oddball Location Belies the Treats Inside

Going to Ethiopian Famous Restaurant & Coffee is something of a religious experience.

To get to the unusual yet satisfying new Central Phoenix eatery — behind a curtain at the back of a strip-mall convenience mart — you may walk past the store's Muslim owner, kneeling on a small rug on the floor, in the process of salat, obligatory prayers performed five times a day. Then you'll pass a rack of traditional Ethiopian shammas, thin white cotton wraps with colored stripes at the ends, worn to 4 a.m. Mass on Ganna, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church's January 7 celebration of Christ's birth.

Finally, you'll smell the cooking doro wot, a dense and rich spicy stew that takes hours — sometimes days — to prepare. Doro wot's ingredients can exceed two dozen or more, creating a complex flavor that seems part and parcel of the Ethiopian spirit — and perhaps even spirituality.

Like any good Ethiopian chef, Abebech Ejersa of Ethiopian Famous says her doro wot, made with slow-cooked onions, boiled egg, and peppery berbere, similar to Southwest American chili powder, is the dish she's most proud of.

Listed first on her menu and served to family and friends gathered to celebrate Ganna at her months-old restaurant on 16th Street and Roosevelt, it is the same recipe she has used for years, at home and in her former restaurant in Ethiopia. The difference being, since she moved to the United States four years ago, several of the ingredients are now shipped from Africa — not just for doro wot, but for much of her traditional cuisine. It's how, she tells me, she keeps her dishes as authentic as possible and why her Ethiopian customers keep coming back for more.

With a handful of Ethiopian restaurants in the Valley — two of the best-known, Cafe Lalibela and Blue Nile Cafe, are in Tempe — Ejersa's restaurant is similar to others in its affordable offerings of the same dozen or so dishes served atop floppy, tart "plates" of injera (flat sourdough bread) placed on large circular trays. But what makes Ethiopian Famous especially distinctive is its location, which makes it a sort of Ethiopian speakeasy (minus the booze).

Inside, you realize that you are in what formerly was the store's storage room. Fluorescent lights illuminate the plum-painted walls decorated with Ethiopian artwork and posters, a mishmash of tables topped with white cloths covered in plastic, and curtains in front of a huge loading dock door. And two mounted TVs are tuned to an Ethiopian channel.

Sometimes there are menus on the table; sometimes there are not. They include a small offering of 15 vegetarian and non-vegetarian traditional Ethiopian favorites, usually prepared warm rather than hot and, no matter the size of your party, served on trays covered with injera, pieces of which are torn off, scooped into an entree, then rolled up with your hands (or, as Ethiopians do, just the right hand) like finger-size tortillas, and eaten.

Along with Ejersa's injera, which she makes fresh every morning, the single dishes are filling and may require a to-go container. It is a good idea to have a back-up plan in case your first choice on the menu is unavailable, and you should be flexible enough on a wot combo (a platter containing a sampling of Ethiopian spicy vegetable and meat dishes) to let Ejersa fill in the blanks. Although there is a language barrier, she will answer questions and offer suggestions in her eager-to-please manner. Besides, that's what the numbers beside the descriptions are for.

Vegetarians and vegans have long known that Ethiopian restaurants offer selections of dishes prepared to fit their diets — the country's tradition of abstinence from all animal products during the many Orthodox Christian fasting days observed in Ethiopia has resulted in non-meat dishes evolving to a necessary part of the cuisine. At Ethiopian Famous, a vegetarian combination may contain little mounds of collard greens with peppers, tasty white cabbage cooked with potatoes, and protein-rich yellow split peas and spicy lentils simmered in Ethiopian spices.

On the meatier side, Ejersa serves dishes of beef, lamb, and tripe liver (for most Ethiopians, pork is forbidden). They are oilier than what I've eaten in other Ethiopian restaurants, but they are juicy, rich, and tender nonetheless — and each emanates a fragrant aroma that hangs heavy in the air. If Ejersa forgets to offer you a small bowl of mitmita, the Ethiopian spice she has shipped from her home country, make sure to ask for it. A light sprinkling of the fiery red-pepper powder mixed into any dish makes each bite different from the next.

Another of Ejersa's favorites is the Ethiopian steak tartar (or kitfo, which means "to chop finely"). A little of the spicy, marinated minced beef — tossed with warm, spiced butter and prepared raw, medium, or well done — goes a long way. Better stewed beef selections include smoky, Southwestern-tasting kaywot yesiga, richly red with beef cubes in berbere sauce, onions, and garlic, served with homemade cottage cheese for cooling; and the spicy minchetabesh made with chopped beef and topped with a boiled egg, a stark white island in a sea of dark beef.

Meals of lamb are especially tender. Like the yebeg kikil, cooked in a butter sauce and richly seasoned with ginger, rosemary, and satisfyingly stinging bites of jalapeño peppers; and the yebeg tibs, a sautéed, fragrant dish of bite-size pieces of lamb marinated in garlic and fresh-ground rosemary with red and green peppers, onions, and a large sprig of rosemary on top for good measure.

At the end of your meal, when Ejersa asks you and your dining companions if you would like coffee, you should accept. That is, if you have another hour or so. Unlike the fast-paced and wakey-wakey reputation it has in America, the drinking of coffee is a highly social, ritualistic, and leisurely endeavor in Ethiopian culture. Its ceremony, enacted after every meal, is one of the most enjoyable parts of the Ethiopian restaurant experience, and an invitation to one is considered a mark of friendship or respect.

And during the coffee ceremony, you may find — after watching Ejersa sit at a small, altar-like area amid burning incense, reverently taking the coffee though its life cycle, from washing and roasting the beans to grinding and boiling to pouring the strong brew into the small, china cup at your table — that this Ethiopian eatery oddly located in the back of a convenience store isn't so strange after all.

In fact, you could get used to the place.

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Laura Hahnefeld
Contact: Laura Hahnefeld