Cafe Reviews

Watt's Good for You

Tina Tamrat Hildebrand laughs and smiles shyly when I play reporter rather than gentleman, and ask her age. This fetching little Ethiopian lady could pass for someone in her mid-to-late 20s, but curiosity has yet to kill the culinary critic, which is why I pose the question.

"You know, in Ethiopia, people do not think about age," she explains in her charming trill of an accent. "In Ethiopia, we don't celebrate birthdays. Most people are born at home, and may not even know their exact age."

Further complicating matters is the fact that Ethiopia uses a 13-month calendar that runs about seven to eight years behind our own Gregorian. But when Hildebrand came to the United States in 1991 as a refugee of war and government repression, she suddenly discovered that here, everyone must know his or her age. She finally determined that she must have been born in the year 1974 of the Western calendar, which will make her 31 this year.

Hildebrand communicates all this as we're seated in her cozy little Chandler eatery Tina's Ethiopian Cafe, and it suddenly strikes me how utterly different life must be in the city of her birth, Addis Ababa. I've eaten at the Valley's other Ethiopian restaurants, and at Ethiopian spots in New York and Los Angeles, but never has eating Ethiopian seemed so intimate as at Tina's.

Part of this has to do with the fact that Hildebrand acts not only as chef, but server. Also, I think it's because Hildebrand has made her cafe an extension of her home. In the front part of the main dining area, you can choose from either a Western-style table or one of the colorful messobs, the traditional dining tables of Ethiopia hand-woven from a special grass. Tempe's Cafe Lalibela and Blue Nile offer this, too, but toward the back of Tina's is an area set up like a den, with a couch and comfy chairs, a coffee table, and a TV set, which screens Ethiopian videos showing demonstrations of tribal dancing or maybe a drama. Hildebrand's hubby, Dan, and her children David, 6, and Daisy, less than a year, are often nearby, adding to the overall aura of domesticity.

The windows are shrouded by curtains in the red, green and yellow of the Ethiopian flag. African carvings, Ethiopian Orthodox crosses, and posters of beautiful Ethiopian women cover the walls. Ethiopian music plays on the stereo, and Ethiopian trinkets are for sale in a display case near the front, along with copies of Hildebrand's self-published cookbook Secrets From Tina's Ethiopian Cafe.

Though Hildebrand's family was prominent, with her father owning a candy factory before a Marxist junta took it and all of his money from him, her mother still taught each of her girls their way around a kitchen. Here in the States, Hildebrand trained to be a nurse, but her dream has always been to start her own restaurant. So when the space became available, she opened Tina's in March of last year, right beside a neighborhood bar called El Coyote.

It's at El Coyote that you can purchase some beer to have with the various watt, or stews, that you'll be eating. Tina's only offers sodas, water, and Ethiopian tea and coffee, the latter flavored with roasted cloves. But Hildebrand allows customers to brown-bag something in from next door, which is helpful because beer does go quite well with Ethiopian food. Hopefully, with time, Hildebrand will get her own liquor license or come to some arrangement with El Coyote, because it would be a real treat to have Ethiopian Harar beer with dinner.

Tina's menu may not be as extensive as at a more established spot like Cafe Lalibela, but what it lacks in length, it makes up for in quality. This is Ethiopian soul food, though much more healthful than the American version, especially since Hildebrand says she eschews the use of Ethiopian butter in her recipes, sticking instead to extra-virgin olive oil.

Hildebrand's enjera, or spongy Ethiopian flatbread made with flour from the native grain teff, is perhaps the thickest and the tastiest I've ever had. Of course, those of you familiar with Abyssinian fare will know that watt is served on a round pancake of enjera, and you can eat either with pieces of enjera torn from this pancake or from a side of enjera accompanying the meal. Hildebrand gives you a whole basket full of the bread, each portion rolled tightly into soft, pale cylinders. By itself, enjera tastes slightly sour, but it really soaks up the juices of the different watt, so you can see why the Ethiopians have not forsaken eating like this for the use of spoons and forks.

Indeed, the watt at Tina's is so savory that you'll be glad there are no utensils to delay its progress to your munch-hole. On the vegetarian side, there's shiro watt, a brownish, souplike substance made from chickpea powder; yemiser watt, or mildly spiced lentils; and fosolia watt, or simmered green beans and carrots. But those I enjoyed the most were the spinach watt, the kik watt, and the yatkilt watt. The spinach is made with onions and olive oil, the kik with yellow split peas and herbs, and the yatkilt with cabbage, carrots and potatoes. The kik is almost like a warm split-pea purée, and the yatkilt reminds me of similar Indian dishes, probably because of the inclusion of yellow curry powder.

Tina's house salad, made with tomatoes, cranberries and sunflower seeds, is also a standout, but I'm a carnivore at heart (or, should I say, at stomach), and that's why I'm such a fan of Hildebrand's meat dishes, which include yedoro watt (chicken), key watt (quarter-inch bits of beef), and beef tibbs, larger pieces of grilled beef with onions and green peppers. Both the yedoro and key watt are slightly spicy from the addition of an Ethiopian red-pepper-based seasoning referred to as berbere, as well as garlic and ginger. But the tibbs is not spicy at all.

For an appetizer, sometimes Hildebrand will bring an Indian-style samosa, or a cup full of dabbo qolo, little bits of fried corn muffin mix, which are habit-forming, they're so scrumptious. I do wish lamb were part of Hildebrand's bill of fare, but she says not enough customers order it. Maybe if I phone ahead, she can make it special for me next time I go.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons