Of course, I have my own platter of grilled meat, which I had bought minutes earlier at Mimi’s Ethiopian BBQ, just up the way on Pennsylvania Avenue SE. Long, ropy lengths of beef are coiled and tangled on a bed of injera, each strip slathered with awaze red-pepper paste and blackened from a brief stay on the grill. Some sections have this sublime crustiness, which forms best, I think, when thickly marinated meats hit a superhot grate. To be honest, I can’t tell who’s enjoying their afternoon more: the children on the pirate ship or me with my zilzil tibs.
Mimi’s is named for Siham Mohammed, whose mother used to call her “Mimi” as a child. Mohammed is an entrepreneur, just like her parents were back in Gondar, in the northern reaches of Ethiopia. Aside from Mimi’s, Mohammed also owns the supermarket a few doors down where, according to the signage, you can get groceries, accessories and your checks cashed. To my mind, the sign doesn’t begin to cover the vast array of foods, services and household goods found in Mohammed’s store.
Mimi’s, by contrast, has only a few offerings. It has even fewer workers. Its principal employee is Hikmah Tasew, older sister to Mohammed. Tasew serves as prep cook, baker, chef, dishwasher, cashier, you name it. She arrives early in the morning and leaves late at night, six days a week. She’s a crew of one, layered in clothes from top to bottom, from her floor-length striped dress to her tawny-colored headscarf. The only visible parts of her body are her hands and her face, which radiates kindness.
“It breaks my heart seeing her working hard, to be honest with you,” says Mohammed. “She makes everything on a daily basis. She doesn’t make anything for the next day. … She makes everything fresh, just like at her house.”
Tasew makes injera every morning, like a master baker, the flatbread’s fermented tang sharp enough to cut through the spice and aromatics of her dishes. Tasew prepares her own awaze sauce, too, which not only marinates her zilzil but also serves as the base for her beef tibs. She sautes the cubed meat in a pan with chunks of tomato, sliced onions and a little awaze. If you want to crank up the heat, she’ll add a second ladle of sauce to the pan, which I would highly recommend.
The name of Mohammed’s restaurant can be something of a tease. Several folks, myself included, have at first assumed Mimi’s Ethiopian BBQ somehow combines East African cooking with American barbecue. It’s not that. The shop’s sole nod to Ethiopian barbecue are those zilzil tibs, which are reason enough to visit Mimi’s. The preparation is a nod to the family’s roots in Gondar, and Tasew executes the dish with the kind of steely perfection that comes only from experience.
The D.C. area is awash with superb Ethiopian cooking, but it remains an outlier in this Randle Highlands neighborhood. Mohammed lives in Silver Spring, an acknowledged destination for Ethiopian dining in the region, but she says the Southeast neighborhood where she works is bereft of East African cooking, save for Mimi’s. That may explain the one anomaly on the menu: an Ethiopian-spiced hamburger, thick, well-done and resistant to easy chewing.
I can’t think of one good reason to order the burger, though, given Tasew’s facility for the food of her mother country. Her vegetarian fare is stellar: Her salad gets a lovely little kick from the garlic submerged among the chopped tomatoes, sliced red onions and diced jalapeños. She takes gomen to a new level by supplementing her collard greens with a potent mixture of parsley, ginger, jalapeños and onions. Her sambusas, folded in-house with spring-roll sheets, are tiny pockets, exquisitely spiced. Her roasted vegetables are tinted ruby red with beets, a visually compelling combination that flits between sweetness and earth. Her misir wot, or spicy red lentils, may not register as high on the Scoville scale as other versions I’ve sampled, but the dish is warm, fragrant and satisfying.
You won’t find any raw meat dishes at Mimi’s, whether kitfo or tere sega. Business hasn’t been robust enough to justify adding dishes that won’t hold well from one day to the next. Tasew, for one, can’t stand the thought of tossing perfectly good food at the end of the evening. But as the pandemic goes underground and Washingtonians begin to emerge from their cocoons, Mohammed predicts a day when her sister will expand the menu beyond its handful of dishes. She foresees kitfo in Mimi’s future.
Mohammed also plans to install tables and chairs in the spotless, somewhat antiseptic space, which should make D.C. officials happy. The owner says the city really wanted a sit-down restaurant in the neighborhood, not another takeout. Personally, I can see the day when Mimi’s will become an attraction not just for Southeast residents, but for anyone who loves good Ethiopian cooking.
Mimi’s Ethiopian BBQ
2523 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, 202-481-0414; mimisbbq.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Nearest Metro: Potomac Avenue, with a 1-mile trip to the restaurant.
Prices: $1.99 to $9.99 for everything on the menu.