Veggie Boy: Cafe Lalibela

A platter filled with Ethiopian entrees, as served by Cafe Lalibela in Tempe.

We hate to sound like a nagging mother, but it might be a good idea to make sure you've scrubbed up good and proper before sitting down to eat at Cafe Lalibela (849 West University Drive in Tempe, 480-829-1939). It's only because the Ethiopian restaurant requires a more of a hands-on approach to dining, literally.

For those who've never eaten at Cafe Lalibela before, here's how it works: With Ethiopian restaurants, most entrees are served communal-style on a largish platter with a big basket of injera (a spongy, crepe-like bread made from teff flour that's native to the country) served alongside. To eat, you're encouraged to tear off large chunks of the bread and use them to shovel food into your craw in lieu of silverware (think Fritos Scoops, but with an east African flair).

No sir, that ain't the dinner napkins. It's a basket full of delicious injera.

And just what are you scooping up? It's a tasty combination of lentils, legumes (a.k.a. beans), vegetables, and other ingredients, all of which is compatible with the veggie crowd.

Although meat dishes are available, a good portion of Cafe Lalibela's cuisine (and the country as a whole) is naturally vegan, owing to the fact that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church requires it's flock to abstain from consuming meat and animal products during the Lent and other fasting periods throughout the year. The practical upshot for veggie types is that half of the eatery's menu consists of guilt-free eats.

A good choice if you've never been to the restaurant before is the "Vegetable Combination," which is a sampler tray of sorts featuring separate piles of such entrees as the spicy azifah (cooked lentils mixed with jalepeno bits and diced onions), or fosolia (a tangy combo of green beans, carrots, and scallions).

Although some of the entrees are entirely flavorful (the tikil gomen made from cabbage and potatoes was somewhat bland), the highlight of the platter is definitely the wat. It's a arromatic Ethiopina staple food consisting from various lentils that have been simmered in stew-like fashion. The misir wat is somewhat piquant, as it's prepared in herbs and hot sauce. Your tounge will definitely get a little warm, but no more than it would after taking a bite of medium salsa.

And while you'll have to order it as a side dish (as it doesn't come with the "Vegetable Combination") definitely try the shiro wat. It's cooked up from a mix of ground garbanzos and peas flavored with dashes of berbere, garlic, and ginger. Believe us, you'll dig it.

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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.