Spices for a Rainy Night

Friday’s blustery winds blew the rain under our rickety umbrellas. A friend and I were undeterred in our desire to get some tasty comfort food on a chilly hurricane night. We braved the four blocks up to Etete. What could be more comforting than food made with love by Mama’s hands?

Etete, a tiny Ethiopian restaurant at 1942 Ninth Street, is named for its chef-owner Etete Tesfaye (Etete means Mama). It opened back in October of 2004, and is part of the string of Ethiopian eateries fast remaking Ninth Street into a culinary destination, a development which gave rise to the “Little Ethiopia” controversy last year.

I’ve only had Ethiopian a handful of times, a shocking shame in a city that could very well say it’s the foremost ethnic cuisine here. But I wasn’t too thrilled with my first experiences, back in my Adams Morgan days. Happily, Friday’s night rainy sojourn convinced me otherwise.

Laughing breathlessly from our losing battle with the winds, we entered another world from the storm. Warm inviting colors of pumpkin spice graced the walls. Etete is very small, and you are seated quite close to other diners, but that’s part of its intimate charm. It’s truly convivial, not corporately contrived.

We decided to order a bottle of the housemade Tej, Ethiopian honey wine. It came in a recycled Red Label bottle, sweet cloudy mead with a touch of hops. Delicious and dangerous, it sent us straight into a happy place.

Our soothing waitress brought out a platter covered with injera, flat and chewy sourdough bread that serves as eating utensil (you also get a basket of extra injera). I hadn’t cared for it before, but Etete’s is very good – soft yet resilient with just a touch of sour. She then scooped out from little pots the three selections we’d decided on, making a colorful array. Yebeg Wat, lamb cooked with berbere and spices, was like a curry stew and especially delicious – pure comfort food. Yefem Tibs is a specialty of the house and probably a good choice if you’re intimidated by eating gooey stews with bread. It’s charcoal-broiled beef marinated in white wine and rosemary, garlic, black pepper, really good. And finally Yemisir Wat, red lentils stewed in red pepper and onion – more comfort food, the color a beautiful orange. There was violent red sauce for fire on the side, salad, and greens. We dug in, devouring the entire basket of injera and half that lined the platter. There’s something truly decadent and relaxing about eating with your hands. Everything was satisfying and the honey wine was a perfect complement to the spices.

Ninth Street is undergoing rapid development, but unlike the corporate dominance of chains that seems to be in danger of overtaking U Street, it seems to be developing with a real eye for independent business. A friend forwarded me Alex Padro’s letter to the August 2006 InTowner which details a long list of new independent business coming to the strip. It’s exciting to see a former major artery of the city develop this way. Not to mention, promising more food options in the future!

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