Hours: Monday to Thursday, noon to 3:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 11 p.m.; Friday to Sunday, noon to 11 p.m.
Atmosphere: Fun, plain, pleasant.
Price range: Dinners from $4.25.
Credit cards: Not accepted; cash or personal checks.
Special facilities: Wheelchair-accessible; catering; parking on street.
We went to Mamma Desta's with the best of intentions: to eat simply and cheaply and authentically from the world of Ethiopian cooking.
Mamma Desta's ("Mother of Happiness") came highly recommended by culture vultures and others as a rare opportunity to sample food of the ancient Abyssinian kingdom. It's a simple vision of eating: lots of stews, which are sopped up with great pieces of spongy bread.
At Mamma Desta's, dinner guests eat communally around big platters laden with stews and piled high with flat injera, a large fermented pancake-like bread. No forks or utensils clutter the table and there is no chance of formality restraining the eating.
The bread, used instead of forks, is broken off in pieces and used to scoop up the stews, which are served either on top of the injera or in side dishes.
The bread is fermented in plastic trash cans for weeks and the bubbling process seems to create a porous, flat and rubbery bread that must be eaten to be understood.
Our kids took some home to show their friends. Curiosity aside, injera is perfectly suited for the highly spiced meaty stews of this cuisine.
It's a nice idea, but, alas, the quality of food leaves something to be desired. That was our reaction after dining at Mamma Desta's one recent Sunday evening.
The place was pleasant enough: a nondescript building on the outside, but comfortably done up inside with paintings, sculpture, woven baskets and other doodads presumably from Ethiopia. The waitress was hospitable and helpful when our party of four adults and two kids sat down and asked for assistance with the menu.
None of us had eaten this food before, and the menu was small--13 dishes with drinks and wine--and completely Ethiopian. So we surrendered to the house and asked simply to be fed.
The waitress ordered for us, four main dishes we could share along with a few side orders. Since the menu only listed 13 entrees, we figured her choices were representive enough. Besides, she said that there was so much food served that we would never finish the four entrees.
We dined on dorro watt, a highly spiced minced chicken, served with a lethally hot pepper sauce (each dish also comes alitcha, or in a milder sauce). It was good, but not overly generous at $4.50 and in the end nothing more than a passable if original barbecue filler for the bread.
Fitfit was served with a heap of bread, over which was poured a thick brown stew of minced chicken and lamb, again spiced with the ubiquitous pepper of Ethiopia, the berberi. At $4.90 it was big enough, but when one scoops out bread and stew with a slab of bread the overall effect is awfully starchy and mushy.
Yebeg watt, a hotly spiced minced lamb ($4.50), was arguably the best dish we tried. It was a rich stew that stood up without difficulty to the starch of the bread.
Beyaynetu yatkilt watt, a combination of vegetables ($4.50), was nothing more than a cold platter of minced chickpeas, boiled carrots and diced kale, all once cooked in the kitchen, but now cold.
In fact, all the dishes brought to our table came cold, and by the look of them we guessed that all of the food at Mamma Desta's is cooked en masse and served until it's gone.
As Mamma Desta's has no desserts, we finished the evening with tej, a mellow honey wine drunk in the highlands of Ethiopia. We sipped it was and left it on the table. A highly spiced flat white wine, it tasted like medicinal mouthwash.
For this family, Mamma Desta's was an inexpensive evening ($28), but an unhappy combination of cold food, old meat, and no fresh veggies or redeeming dessert.