$$$$ ($14 and under)
Warka photo
Jahi Chikwendiu/The Post

Editorial Review

Getting to the Meat of The Matter at Warka

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 1, 2007

It has been a long time since Adams Morgan could claim exclusive rights to Washington's Ethiopian culinary community -- and in any case that longtime "Little Ethiopia" has been superseded by the cluster of restaurants around 14th and U streets NW -- but it's still relatively unusual to find Ethiopian establishments in the outer suburbs. So Herndon's Warka, though small (perhaps three dozen seats, counting the bar), would seem to have a fairly wide area from which to attract its clientele. As it happens, the clientele is generally mixed, with non-Ethiopian fans of the fare happy to avoid the Dulles Toll Road or Beltway commute.

Some days, in fact, the customers are so "mixed" that only the carryout patrons and the music video stars speak Amharic. (Indeed, the little industrial park, off Spring Street between the Herndon and Reston parkways, is a melting pot of dining options: a pho shop, a kebab kitchen, a Japanese-Chinese restaurant, a Chinese one, an Indian cafe, an ambitious pan-Asian/Caribbean fusion restaurant, an elaborate bakery, an Asian grocery and a luncheonette.)

Visually, Warka could be almost any flavor of restaurant; it is painted a foliage green and decorated with botanical prints, and the tables are ordinary square-tops. In fact, in some ways Warka could be described as an Ethiopian restaurant for Americans (or Americanized Ethiopians): The meat dishes and the fine house-made chili sauces are prime; the vegetarian ones are just pedestrian.

Ethiopians eat a lot of meat, and with gusto, especially as it relates to seasoning. One of the best dishes on the menu is gored gored, a heaping portion of high-quality raw beef cut into large chunks and generously seasoned with berbere and a little spiced clarified butter. (Berbere is one of the great spicy addictions in life, a combination of ground chilies, paprika, black pepper, salt, onions, garlic, salt and ginger, along with any number of other brown spices, such as nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom or allspice.) Kitfo, the smaller minced beef often referred to as Ethiopian tartare and generally available raw or cooked, here is served cooked only.

Yebeg tibs is cubed lamb -- leg sirloin, by the taste -- cooked with jalapenos, tomatoes and sprigs of fresh rosemary and served with awaze sauce, a pureed sauce like thick marinara. (You can get a hotter dip on the side if you like.) Yesega tibs is beef. Ingredients in tibs are generally cooked first and then hot-sauced, while those in wots are braised in berbere, sort of like the difference between dry and wet barbecue.

An even more delicious dish, for those who appreciate offal, is dullet, lamb tripe and liver (here mixed with meat), a gamier and more aromatic dish than the tibs; unfortunately, the kitchen can't always obtain the ingredients.

Warka's version of doro wot has more punch than many versions: The chicken (two drumsticks to a portion) is marinated in lemon juice, seared in spiced niter kibbeh and braised in red pepper sauce.

There are several versions of firfir or fitfit, a homey dish in which pieces of injera are cooked in the dish; there are lamb and two beef versions and one with fresh tomatoes, the Ethiopian version of panzanella. The injera here, incidentally, is very thin and light and only mildly sour.

On the other hand, though vegetarian dishes are among an Ethiopian restaurant's strong draws, especially for younger diners, here they seem rather offhand or just palate-cleansers for the meats. On more than one occasion, the lentils and the cabbage were undercooked, and the lentils and chickpeas were bland, although described as spicy. (The lentils in the sambusas were also half-hard and tasteless, and the pastry, though crisp, hadn't been blotted of its oil.) The greens, chopped kale or collards, were dull; the green beans with carrots somewhat better. And even when they were part of a veggie-only combo, the portions were restrained.

Even stranger, after a fine and seriously spicy first night's dinner, a second night's meal -- one that happened to coincide with a room full of other non-Ethiopian customers -- was surprisingly cautious, and the orders came out not joined on the injera-draped basket but separately on plates, which took away much of the fun and a good deal of flavor. (This seems especially odd since Warka's Web site emphasizes the communal nature of Ethiopian dining.) It was a Saturday, with live music scheduled, and whether the kitchen was expecting a late crowd and feared running short of injera or just condescending to some perceived notion of American habits wasn't clear. It would have been an aberration, however, as the staff is extremely pleasant and obliging.

In addition to a full bar, Warka offers a couple of Ethiopian beers and four Ethiopian wines: tej, the honey wine; a sweet red; a drier, rather thin red; and a light, somewhat floral white, which turned out to be a rather nice match for the spices. (The house wines are from California.) Though short, the wine list provides what could be a fine romantic opening: Tej, the menu says, goes back to the reign of "the Queen of Shebs-Saba," or as she is known in the United States, the Queen of Sheba. According to legend, the founder of Ethiopia, Menelik I, was the child of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, whose beauty some people believe inspired the erotic flights of "The Song of Solomon." Maybe it's more potent than you think.

Note: Although the restrooms have wide doors and support bars for patrons in wheelchairs, there are several steps at the entrance, and the two doors in the foyer are set at right angles.