At Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant in Fairfax, slightly haunting instrumental music and spicy smells transport you to East Africa.
Owner, manager and cook Azeb Gide serves family recipes from Addis Ababa; she used to own a restaurant in her native Ethiopia.
"When I introduced my food to American friends, they said it was really good," she says. So in early February she opened a restaurant here, next door to a Peruvian chicken carryout and within walking distance of Thai, Chinese, sushi, crepe and pizza places - and McDonald's. But business has been steady, and waits at her dark-wood counter are short; about 25 minutes tops if you don't call ahead.
"I think my greatest compliment is that I have repeat people," Gide says. The 41-year-old mother of four children, ages 6 to 15, wants her American-born brood to appreciate their heritage.
Her family and friends collaborated on Sheba's decor. A friend recommended chef Adanetch Hussein, who previously worked at Peacock Restaurant in Falls Church and works part-time with Gide.
Ethiopian meals are eaten communally without utensils; bite-size meats and chopped vegetables are served on injera, the thin sour bread that is usually made of fermented teff grain. Sheba's injera is made with a combination of teff, barley and wheat flours, and it seems spongier than others we've tried.
More than half the current menu is vegetarian and vegan, including an entree composed of five sides ($12.95) that's a good deal. Dishes at Sheba can be spice-customized: "The beauty of Ethiopian food is you can always tailor it to a person," Gide says.
Entrees such as the slightly chewy nuggets of beef in a mild onion sauce (lega tibs, $14.95) are generous enough for two to share. They come with two sides chosen from the vegetarian menu of five, such as the intensely spicy lentils (messer wot) in chili-flavored berbere sauce and the sweet-and-sour cabbage and carrots (tikil gomen), a delicate mound of julienne vegetables. Sides also can be bought separately ($4.95).
Takeout travels pretty well in sturdy plastic foam containers. However, I tipped an order over in my car: turmeric-sauced lamb so tender it falls off the bone (beg alitcha, $13.95). The sauce soaked through only its top layer of complementary injera.
For a tasty lunch, I recommend pairing a thin triangle of pan-fried pastry filled with lentils (samboussa, $3.95) - which is perfect to eat one-handed - with a bowl of lentil soup ($4.95) or a salad ($4.95 to $6.95). The latter isn't the usual mix of lettuces but a blend of tomato, onion, jalapeno and torn pieces of injera, all doused with a spicy lemon sauce.
Honey wine, made by Gide's sister-in-law, is available if you dine at one of the four Ethiopian basket tables. Soon, there will be another reason to stay: Ethiopian coffee ceremonies, where roasted beans are passed around to smell before being ground, boiled with water and served. Coffee lovers, line up now.
-- Sue Kovach Shuman