Sacramento, CA 95814
When I was a kid, my family went on a trip to Washington, D.C., where we ate in an Ethiopian restaurant—something more exotic than a girl from the Central Valley had ever seen before. The family was divided on it. My mom and my brother liked it, as I recall; my dad and I were, shall we say, not impressed.
I can’t believe it’s taken me this long—more than 20 years—to step up and admit I was very, very wrong about Ethiopian food. It took a visit to Queen Sheba in its new Broadway location to change my mind, but, honestly, I don’t know why I didn’t like the cuisine in the first place. It’s subtly spiced (with some hotter dishes), interesting and kid-friendly: After all, you eat with your hands. My toddler’s favorite thing right now is food you can dip. “Dip! Dip!” she cries with delight whenever there’s a little bowl of sauce or a dippable item within view. This proclivity made our meal at Queen Sheba both a delight and a challenge: She loved the dipping, but we were hard pressed to keep her away from the spicier items on the dinner tray.
If you’ve not had Ethiopian food, all the dishes—most of them saucy stews of meat and/or vegetables—come heaped around a large, round, rimmed tray, on top of a large round of injera. The latter is the sour, spongy flat bread that I think was responsible for my adverse reaction to the cuisine in the first place. It’s unfamiliar for a Western palate, accustomed to bread that’s crusty or firm. Injera is much softer than, say, a tortilla, with a light yet damp texture. You get a basket of it, rolled up like so many Ace bandages, in addition to what’s on the tray. Traditionally, the injera that forms the meal’s base is eaten at the end of the meal, but personally, I found the injera on the tray to be too greasy for palatability. It had soaked up a lot of the excess sauce and underneath it was a bit of an oil slick.
The restaurant is housed in what used to be the Jamaican restaurant Sweet Fingers. It’s been transformed: from being dark, it’s now light and welcoming, with lots of bright red, yellow and green in the décor. There’s appealing art from Ethiopia on the walls, an equally charming hostess in the person of owner Zion Teddese, and a slightly less charming (but strangely interesting) documentary about Addis Ababa on the television, at least when we went there.
The best way to try a sampling of the dishes—which is really what you want to do here—is to go with a couple of the combination plates. We also started out with the sambusa appetizer, or we tried to start out with it. Unfortunately, it was forgotten and arrived near the end of our meal, and when it did come the pastry was a bit scorched. (A sambusa is a savory pastry with a crisp, light outer crust and a spiced lentil filling.) Although we didn’t complain and really didn’t mind much about the delay, the server/owner comped it on our final bill, which was a nice gesture.
Our two combination plates, numbers 19 and 21, included everything from a tangy lamb stew to collard greens heaped in little mounds around the large platter. At first the piles of food look a bit small, but they’re not: the whole is extremely filling. The lamb was among my favorites, with its dusky spices. The meat was slightly chewy and a tiny bit gamy, but I like lamb that way, and it was balanced by the spices and the sour injera. The collard greens, called gomen, were very well cooked and finely chopped with lots of onions and garlic and spices. Their deep vegetable flavor made them a hit, as well, though not with my daughter.
Between the collard greens and the lentil dishes, this would be a good pick for vegetarians. I loved the spicy golden lentils, which were saucy and tasted almost Indian but with more textural integrity than dal. The platter also came with a lemony, tart heap of salad—a nice counterpoint to the various sauces. Other meat dishes included doro wat, with a hot, brick-red, earthy sauce covering a tender chicken leg; a tasty chicken-vegetable stew dominated by the almost medicinal flavor of turmeric (though the chicken meat was a touch dry), and beef tibbs, a stew of tender little beef cubes, lightly spiced, that everyone at the table loved.
We washed it all down with two kinds of Ethiopian wine, both sweet: traditional honey wine and a fruity red that tasted a little odd on its own—a sweet red wine is certainly unfamiliar on the palate—but paired perfectly with the food. Queen Sheba also offers beers and Ethiopian tea and coffee, two drinks I’d be interested to try.
I think I’ll make sure I do that soon. After visiting Queen Sheba, I don’t want to wait another 20 years to have Ethiopian food again.