Be like Mike
Habesha Restaurant2326 Fair Oaks Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95825
Mike Amharai is Habesha Restaurant.
The gray, curly-haired owner both mans the counter and, when an order is taken, retreats to the kitchen to create it. Habesha, a person from Ethiopia, is what used to be Gyros Express, a place sequestered off Fair Oaks Boulevard in the dim reaches of an L-shaped strip mall across from Pavilions shopping center. To visit Habesha indeed requires extreme gumption, but a pilgrimage won’t be regretted. Don’t go just for Mike—although hanging with him is well worth the price of any meal on the menu—but for the Ethiopian fare he prepares.
All of the previous offerings of the former Gyros Express remain, including the tasty and prodigious namesake. There are also a variety of Sacramento State-friendly offerings like onion rings and burgers and hookahs with a plethora of flavors—Wild Mint and Sex on the Beach, among them.
But venturing to Habesha for hookahs and hamburgers would be a grave error. Nor would it be prudent to trek there for ambience. This isn’t the gussified Queen of Sheba on Broadway. It’s tables and chairs and a counter with white walls brightened by vibrant paintings and photos of high cheek-boned Ethiopian women and scenes from the home country. There’s also a representation of people sitting around a mesob, the wicker hourglass table Ethiopian meals are served on. One wall hanging depicts the Tigrinya alphabet, the language of Amharic in Ethiopia’s central highlands and Eritrea, to the north of Ethiopia. There’s also a flat-screen TV that frequently catches Mike’s attention, particularly when it’s a basketball game.
“I hate the Lakers,” he says with poorly veiled vehemence.
The best strategy is to let Mike be the culinary tour guide. But no matter where he takes you, one thing is constant: injera. It’s the spongy bread, probably made them same way as it was millennia ago, that is the foundation of Ethiopian food. Literally. Everything comes atop a bed of injera, which, in turn, also serves as utensil. Tear off a square, wrap it Zig Zag-like around beef, chicken, veggie or salad and ingest. In case being the Ethiopian version of the Flying Wallendas isn’t your groove, Mike happily brings utensils.
At Habesha, there’s usually three things above the injera. A Greek salad with tomatoes, cucumber and red onions; a warm vegetable accompaniment; and a thick meat or poultry stew called wot.
Mike serves the national dish: tsebhi derho ye-doro wot. It’s chicken drumsticks and a hard-boiled egg simmered in a dark berbere sauce. Also aloft the injera is a mix of fried potatoes and green beans.
This berbere is worth bringing home—Mike’s got plenty—and applying to other dishes. There’s chili pepper and paprika for sure but hints of cardamom, clove, garlic and nutmeg, which combine for a tickling of the palate but not a roundhouse punch.
As to chicken drumsticks being the national dish, Mike says pretty much everyone can afford chickens. Chickens must be cut into 12 pieces and, Mike says, the proficiency of women when they marry to do so is a measure of how prepared they are.
The birsin, a lentil stew, is mild and creates a yin to the yang of the different wots, which can be made mild. The kulwa, in a thick reddish sauce, is a beef wot with onions, pepper and a goodly slug of garlic.
One visit, Mike says he’s going to make beef but instead slips me zignie, lamb in a chili sauce that is similar to berbere. Want to see what thirsty Ethiopians drink? There’s St. George, Meta and Harar beer on ice.
Conversation with Mike can turn to children—his son was a film major now teaching English in Korea—to cuisine: The Sri Lankans use lots of turnips in their food, for example. Wherever the conversation goes, it’s a delight. Mike wants to know if I’m game for “Ethiopian sushi,” which is raw beef. I was born game. Come see what you’re missing.