IT'S A TEFF CHOICE, but somebody has to make it.
The first Ethiopian restaurant to hook me hard was the Abyssinian, which faced the Washington Hilton from across Florida Avenue. I'd dabbled in Adams Morgan, with moderately pleasant results, but it was the Abyssinian's injera that hauled me in, sour and blini-ish and with a spongy texture so entirely luxurious it seemed you should wrap yourself up along with the kitfo.
It's been a while since I had that happy an encounter, but the injera at Arlington's Meaza -- injeras, in fact, the darker made entirely of teff and the paler half teff, half whole wheat -- has reconciled me to what can only be called the white-breading of many Washington Ethiopian restaurants. That, and the tripe.
"Bread" is almost universal shorthand for sustenance, both spiritual and physical; and in few cuisines is it more central than Ethiopian, where the injera, the large, soft pancake that is torn up and dipped bite by bite into the dishes, serves as plate, utensil and napkin as well as bread. Consequently, even a meal of the most exquisite lentil stew on humdrum injera quickly goes flat.
Teff, the small but nutritionally potent grain traditionally used for making injera, is expensive to import, and most Ethiopian kitchens and injera bakeries in the area have switched to part-teff blends or use buckwheat and other similarly sour doughs instead. (Injera is as pure a dough as it comes, with flour, water and a few days' fermenting, which gives it both the spongy, air-bubbly texture and the distinctively pungent flavor.) But none is quite as puckery, or as dark brown, as pure teff, and for those who love the real stuff, the teff injera at Meaza, though no longer made in-house, is as good as it comes, great pizza-size pancakes for $5 an order (about a half-dozen!). Even the half whole wheat, which comes standard unless you request the other, is better than most.
The other reason to eat at Meaza is almost everything else, and the comfortable tables of lingering guests attest to it. The tabletop trays -- Ethiopian meals are served family-style with the various dishes spooned out onto one layer of injera -- come with another twofer, pools of spicy berbere sauce and piles of the salt-chili mix mitmitta for personal heat adjustment, since even if you ask for spicy meats, the kitchen is American-wary. The portions, on the other hand, are definitely upsized/Americanized; the pile of kitfo, the Ethiopian steak tartare, must have weighed a pound.
It's a more meat-centric menu than most, in fact, unusually short on vegetarian options: two lentil dishes, one slightly spicier than the other, a plain cabbage stew and a better collards version, plus a chopped tomato-onion salad and a first-rate house-made yogurt cheese. (You may have to negotiate the menu carefully, as not everything is translated, some dishes are translated rather haphazardly, and even the waitresses sometimes have a little difficulty enunciating the differences.) The "appetizer" of lamb short ribs, six or seven hefty bones, are grilled crunchy on the outside and succulent inside, a meal in themselves. Don't be surprised that the fat layer is left intact. Most all Ethiopian food is prepared with the clarified butter called niter kibbeh, which is another reason to indulge in the berbere, which helps cut the oiliness. The other most popular appetizer, the sambussas, (i.e., samosas) tend to sell out early.
To some extent the entree choices have to do with size and soupiness: Both beef and lamb come variously chopped, braised, cubed and grilled; and there's a chili-head's special, ground beef with mitmitta and jalapenos. Theoretically, as a hint, wot stews are hotter than alicha recipes -- think: "wot" as in "hot" or "watt" -- but again, the kitchen is cautious.
As mentioned, the dishes can seem greasy, especially cumulatively. The classic doro wot, chicken stewed to a thick shredded-meat sauce but with one leg and one hard-cooked egg left intact, is richly flavored, but the oil sort of settles at the top of the pot, which makes second helpings a little tricky. Go slow and taste the different oils, if you know what I mean; the kibbeh is often spiced as well.
The personal fave on the menu is milas, senber and tibs, here a non-oily stew of lamb tripe and tongue -- "trips and tongs," as the menu has it, which sounds irresistibly like a medieval fantasy game. The yebeg tibs, cubed leg of lamb with ginger, is a second choice; the red snapper, also either chopped small or cubed larger, is jalapeno-tangy and offset by the salsalike tomato salad.
Compared with some of downtown's trendier, younger mixed-clientele Ethiopian restaurants, the atmosphere at Meaza seems quiet, low-key and neighborly. The dining room looks much like the old-style NoVa bar it must once have been (it's in the Baileys Crossroads area, just east of Carlin Springs Road), with the sit-down bar across the back short wall, step-up seating and half-walls around the sides and a bandstand to one side. Meaza herself -- owner Meaza Zemedu, who also owns the international market through which one enters -- circulates pleasantly, and the obvious expectation that you wish to take your time is pleasantly old-fashioned. However, just as weekends are packed, Mondays the kitchen can seem exhausted: While the injera and collards were as good as usual, the fish was a trifle strong, and the ribs were leftovers-hard and almost seemed already stripped. Wait and join the crowd.