Among the world’s most versatile dishes is injera, the spongy fermented bread that does double duty as a canvas for Ethiopia’s popular salads and stews and as a utensil for ferrying food to mouth. Forks and knives aren’t necessary when a diner has fingers and the ability to tear a piece from a scroll of the tangy, crepe-like staple.
At Makeda, a September arrival in Alexandria, injera also stars as a snack called kategna: toasted, burnt-red wedges that suggest a pizza with a dab of crumbly cottage cheese in the center of the pinwheel. Bite down, and the crisp slice oozes fat and fire, from a combination of oil (or butter) and awaze, Ethiopia’s answer to hot sauce. Your hands will get messy, but your stomach will be happy.
Kategna is one of several draws at Makeda, whose co-owner, Philipos Mengistu, calls New York home and owns the well-received Queen of Sheba there. You could say he’s carrying coals to Newcastle, except that his business partner, Daniel Solomon, lives here and the two have been friends since they were in kindergarten in their native Addis Ababa. Their chef, Senait “Mimi” Tedla, also from the capital of Ethiopia, cooked at a school in Jerusalem and recalls learning to cook at age 8 — something of a necessity, considering she was one of nine children. If you’re not starting a meal with kategna, consider a flaky sambusa stuffed with lentils or ground beef, hit with cilantro and enlivened by a dunk in awaze. The sauce looks like ketchup, only darker, and tastes like liquid fire.
Like a lot of the competition, the menu at Makeda, its name a reference to the biblical Queen of Sheba, leans heavily on lamb, beef and chicken, the last of which appears in one of the best-known dishes of the Ethiopian repertoire, doro wat. What sets the signature apart from other staples of the cuisine is the time and effort that goes into its sauce, as complex as any Mexican mole and just as nuanced. Berbere is the most forceful seasoning, but garlic, ginger and cardamom also reveal themselves in the chicken stew that’s a source of national pride.
Makeda buys good meat and knows not to overcook it. Tender cubes of leg of lamb in a light cloak of chile sauce produce fine awaze tibs. Soft lamb shoulder, stir-fried with sweet onions and crisp jalapeños, and finished with rosemary and red wine, give credence to the chef’s “special” tibs.
To make quanta firfir, or beef jerky, the chef marinates beef using wine, garlic and berbere, then dries it overnight in the oven. The result, pleasantly chewy, is folded into torn pieces of leftover injera, each mouthful pulsing with heat. Quanta firfir, often eaten at breakfast, is a hangover cure on par with menudo in Mexico, poutine in Canada and haejangguk, a soup thickened with ox blood, in Korea.
The best value for the undecided meat lover is the $25 Taste of Makeda, a platter of seven dishes, including the popular doro wat, the aforementioned awaze tibs and gomen besiga, cubed lean beef tossed with shredded, garlicky collards. Spicy red lentils leave a slow burn in their wake, while a salad of avocado, tomato and onion provides a cool cushion.
If you think of Ethiopian food like a song with a limited number of notes, repeated over and over, this restaurant disproves the notion with its concert of flavors.
Ethiopia’s large population of Christians and Muslims, who observe many days sans meat, translates to some delightful vegetarian eating. Indeed, a sampler of some of the more typical examples yields the most eye-catching displays, as wrinkled green beans mixed with sweet carrots, chickpeas seasoned with turmeric and ginger, red lentils spiked with berbere, and cabbage and potatoes share an injera-covered platter. A separate vegetarian list includes suf fitfit, pieces of injera combined with boiled, ground sunflower seeds. Soft and wet, the tangy dish is more of an acquired taste. (Gluten-free injera from Ethiopia is also available.)
One of the few misfires over the course of three meals was ground tilapia, offered as a warm salad that was low on the advertised cardamom and funkier than the shredded fish salads I’ve enjoyed in other Ethiopian establishments. Also, the bar that opens the 95-seat restaurant, accessorized with contemporary paintings from Ethiopia, issues cocktails so unbalanced they have you asking for beer the next round.
In other ways, Makeda rivals the family-owned Zenebech in Washington, arguably the gold standard for Ethiopian dining in the region right now. Both restaurants embrace bars, attractive dining rooms, women as chefs and dynamite kitfo, the spice- and butter-lush steak tartare. (Makeda even serves a version with tuna lubricated with olive oil, a riff that I learned about only recently and plan to explore the next trip.)
The similarity stops with the uneven service, at times so hesitant, I wondered if the staff had ever worked in a restaurant before. The best brand ambassador is Tedla, who takes time to leave the kitchen now and then to chat up customers.
Then again, I was charmed on my last visit to get extra cabbage with carrots when a server saw our vegetarian platter was running low on the naturally sweet, turmeric-brightened salad. And later, after a companion departed Makeda without his leftovers, another employee ran out of the restaurant and into the parking lot to match the unfinished meal with its recipient, who the next morning reaffirmed the all-purposeness of injera when he texted me to report: Kategna makes a great addition to a breakfast of fried eggs.
516A S. Van Dorn St., Alexandria.
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
Prices: Appetizers $5 to $7, entrees $12 to $17.
Sound check: 67 decibels / Conversation is easy.