The first of the Ethiopian restaurants, Mamma Desta wears its maturity well. The walls are now hung with African artifacts and paintings. A bamboo half-roof over the bar and screen in front of the entrance create the sense of a hut. And basket tables with low stools (and TV trays for holding drinks) allow total immersion in Ethiopian dining. If they are full or you don't like low benches, you can eat at ordinary booths; now they are covered with tablecloths as elegance creeps into Mamma Desta. Lithe waitresses wear gold spangles in their hair. Ethiopian music plays faintly. Lest you think Mamma Desta is turning hopelessly chic, however, the enormous stainless steel refrigerator still sits prominently in the dining room.
Mamma Desta's has the longest list of dishes in a local Ethiopian restaurant, but the twelve choices really break down into dorro (chicken and boiled egg), yebeg (lamb) or tibs (diced beef) either as alitchas (spiced stews) or watts (hot and spiced stews) plus kitfo (very spicy and buttery tartar steak) and two other beef dishes. Dishes are brought in metal bowls for you to spoon on the injera yourself, and a couple of soggy, dull vegetable dishes accompany them. Most of the meat dishes are served in small portions, except (fortunately) the best of them, tibs. Tibs at its best is quickly sauteed in a very hot pan so it tastes smoky, its only flavorings being sauteed onions and chunks of hot green peppers you can remove if you prefer. The other dishes are in thick red sauces flavored with berberi, sharp and spicy and medium-hot. The hottest at Mamma Desta's -- as at all of the restaurants -- was kitfo, the chopped raw beef. It is all zesty food, fun to eat, its flavors growing on you so that you continue nibbling. Thus are all the Ethiopian restaurants. But in two ways Mamma Desta's stands out. First, the injera is the best of the field, at least by a shade. The pancakes are sourer, more even-textured than any we found. But most important to dining at Mamma Desta's is the honey wine, called teg. It is not on the menu, but if you look around the usually-crowded room, you will notice people taking swigs from small bulbous glass jugs. They contain honey wine, $1 for your own personal jug to quaff, the brew sweet and light, with a faint bitter undertone that saves it from being cloying. It is like drinking flowers. And it is reason enough to try Mamma Desta.