The dining review in last week's District Weekly listed an incorrect address and phone number for the Adams Cafe. The correct adress is 2004 18th St. NW. The phone number is 387-1130. (Published 7/ 19/90)
2319 18th St. NW
Hours: Noon to 2 a.m. Sunday through Thursday; noon to 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
Prices: Entrees $4.95 to $7.50 at lunch and dinner.
Cards: None accepted.
No separate nonsmoking area.
Once there was a small restaurant on 18th Street NW that was either too far south of Adams-Morgan or too far north of Dupont Circle -- in either case, off the beaten path. It had an even smaller clientele and a hand-lettered sign out front: Adams-Morgan Steakhouse.
But the Steakhouse wasn't a success. And in time a new owner took it over, and a new menu appeared in the window, this time Ethiopian. The place had a new name too: Adams Cafe.
Still for many months the old hand-lettered Steakhouse sign didn't come down, which meant that when a customer strolled in looking to order a steak, the waitress would have to explain: New owner, new menu.
As for why some things on the new menu were not available, the explanations got more comical. For in fact, most things on the new menu were not available.
One night in April, we dropped by with two friends, ordered six different items and learned that only two were available. Well, since the old steakhouse sign was still up, was there a steak? Sure, said the smiling proprietor, and out came a steak -- a greasy tasteless one, but by this point we weren't feeling picky.
A more recent visit to the Adams Cafe was similarly surreal, but an improvement nonetheless. The old steakhouse sign was down but a replacement wasn't up yet.
Construction debris in an adjoining room suggested an expansion plan underway, but few customers were in evidence. Those who were, however, helped make the place seem warm and friendly despite its unfinished feeling. An animated group of Ethiopians, chattering in Amharic over coffee and beer, occupied the front of the small main room.
And more, though not all, items on the menu were actually available.
We had beers and fruit juices while we waited, which was a good thing because it took a while for the food to arrive. There is also the Ethiopian honey wine called Tej at $2 a glass. When the entrees came, they were slightly better than several months earlier, with spicy sauces and ample portions.
Goden tibs ($7.25), one of the house specials, consisted of crispy slices of lamb, some on the bone, fried with onions and only slightly searing green chilies. The onions were sweet and tender, the lamb pieces fried till they were crunchy around the edges. The peppers added a nice kick.
The doro wat ($6.95) came in a thick, light tomato sauce with a healthy dose of hot red pepper. When the few pieces of chicken meat, whole chicken leg and hard-boiled egg were gone, the sauce was good for sopping up with leftover injera, the spongy pancake-like bread that is torn into bite-size pieces and used to scoop up food at Ethiopian meals.
All this was served on a large plastic platter lined with more injera.
Pureed lentils accompanied the entrees, as did a salad. The lentils were a jarring orange color but tasted fine. A "Somali special" turned out to be spaghetti with tomato and meat sauce. It came with a roll.
Last to arrive at the table was the salad, which was iceberg lettuce with a bit of tomato in a pleasant oil and vinegar dressing -- but way overpriced at $2.95.
We finally realized what the Adams Cafe reminded us of: the many meals we had years ago in small dusty African towns where no one was in a hurry, the talk was lively and the fare basic. Loud Ethiopian music played over a portable boom box with tiny speakers balanced on a shelf behind the bar. The communal serving style, with shared platters and fingers substituting for silverware as in most Ethiopian restaurants, made us feel as if we were eating in someone's home.
The dining room was carpeted in linty red. A coffee pot behind the bar was stoppered with a teacup, and the few posters on the walls were the kind that come free from beer distributors. And as we contemplated the menu, the phone rang about 12 times before our waitress politely asked a man standing not two feet from it to answer it.
Our waitress was friendly and polite but could not make up for the fact that of 19 entrees and five combination plates plus three specials listed on a blackboard in the front window, only five offerings total were on hand. Also, there were no vegetables except the salad and no vegetarian dishes beyond the lentil dish, which the waitress referred to as "beans."
How about dessert? The menu lists seasonal fruits, ice cream, bakhlava, cheesecake and German chocolate cake.
Unfortunately, the night we were there, none was available.