I’m talking about the family behind Zenebech, the name that crosses everyone’s lips when discussing the finest Ethiopian restaurants in Washington. In fall 2016, founders Zenebech Dessu and Gebrehanna Demissie finally sold to developers who had long slobbered over their Shaw property on T Street NW. Less than a year later, the family reopened Zenebech in Adams Morgan.
Zenebech’s resurrection in the new location felt like a rebirth not only for the business, but also for the neighborhood, once the nerve center of a thriving Ethiopian and Eritrean community in the District. An East African rhythm once again pulsated in Adams Morgan with a mix of newcomers and established restaurants, whether Ababa on 18th Street NW or Keren on Florida Avenue NW.
It did until late December, that is. That’s when a midnight blaze erupted at #1 Juicy Cajun Seafood, next door to Zenebech. Within a matter of minutes, it had caused collateral damage: The fire stopped Zenebech’s comeback in its tracks.
Michael Demissie, son of Zenebech’s founders, says the damage was not as awful as originally feared: mostly smoke and water damage on the dining-room side, the space nearest Juicy Cajun. Zenebech’s recovery has been slowed, he adds, by the inevitable insurance squabbles. Zenebech expects to return to the scene by mid-April.
The family has been using the unexpected down time to tinker with the menu. They want to offer smaller portions for the lunch crowd. They may even create a few Ethiopian-American dishes to help introduce the cuisine to those unfamiliar with its fragrant, handheld pleasures. Think: french fries topped with fresh ayib cheese and the spiced (and often raw) Ethiopian ground beef known as kitfo. Or boneless wings dressed up to resemble doro wat, the chicken-and-egg stew often dubbed the national dish of Ethiopia.
“This will give us a chance to work on some things,” Demissie says, “and come back better than ever.”
In the meantime, Zenebech remains atop my list of Washington’s best Ethiopian restaurants because, to my mind, you can’t lose your title without a fair chance to defend it. Argue with me if you’d like.
The H Street establishment has found smart ways to incorporate the art and iconography of Ethiopia into a space as intimate as a farm-to-table hideaway in Shaw. The place was among the first to suggest that Ethiopian cooking was not reserved for expats knocking back St. George lagers in a dumpy storefront, but a cuisine worthy of a sauvignon blanc or some other bottle too often associated with European fare. A refined spot for a refined take on Ethiopian plates. 401 H St. NE. 202-675-2066.
9. Keren Restaurant and Coffee Shop
Some will tell you there’s no difference between an Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurant, other than cultural pride. That’s largely true in my experience, but this Eritrean mainstay in Adams Morgan points up one telltale difference: Its plates of pasta and breaded cutlets are stark reminders that the country was once under Italian rule. Try the beef cotoletta, Keren’s take on veal Milanese. The cutlet may strike a hollow note on its own, but it will provide a steady bass line to the arpeggio flash of the accompanying salads. The ful here, a breakfast staple offered any time of day, is an attraction all its own. 1780 Florida Ave. NW. 202-265-5764.
Earlier this winter, on a day that could blast-chill your face in seconds, I was left cold by my meal here, a vegetarian platter that missed the mark on multiple fronts: texture, seasoning and spice. I was concerned. A week later, I returned to find Chercher again hitting on all cylinders. I was perplexed. Chercher’s inconsistency, I’m afraid, has forced me to demote it from its previous position at No. 4 on this list. 1334 Ninth St. NW. 202-299-9703.
Downtown Silver Spring, like Build America Plaza in Falls Church, is a magnet for Ethiopians. The Maryland suburb teems with East African restaurants and cafes, some more welcoming than others to outsiders on a busy Saturday night. The recently renamed Beteseb has carved out a niche as an approachable outpost for all comers, whether newbies to the cuisine or expats looking for a taste of home. More important, the food remain vibrantly spiced, not some milquetoast interpretation to entice first-timers. 8201 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. 301-448-1625.
6. Abay Market and Restaurant
Located in the same strip center as Nazret, the No. 3 restaurant on the list — admirers of Ethiopian food and culture should have Build America Plaza permanently programmed into their GPS — Abay specializes in meat. The rawer, the better. Owner Yonas Alemayehu was among the first in the area to offer tere sega, the glistening slabs of beef round sliced straight off the haunch. Often served as a celebratory dish in Ethiopia, tere sega is a daily attraction at Abay, where the lean meat provides a cool, animalistic counterpoint to the fiery, man-made awaze sauce. Alemayehu’s kitfo — served raw, of course — may even be better. 3811-A S. George Mason Dr., Falls Church. 703-998-5322.
Owner Meaza Zemedu and her team do not prepare injera daily. They prepare it multiple times a day — to ensure that this focal point of the Ethiopian table is always light, airy and fresh. Wrap that tangy flatbread around almost anything on Zemedu’s menu — I’d suggest the Meaza tibs, tender morsels of beef that you can immolate with the accompanying awaze sauce — and you’ll immediately understand the importance of good injera. 5700 Columbia Pike, Falls Church. 703-820-2870.
This reliable outpost of East African cooking, in a free-standing cottage in Silver Spring, drops by a couple of spots from the previous list, but only because the competition (at least, the competition I have tried) continues to improve. I still consider Bete’s vegetarian combo — especially its green-lentil salad, azifa, with its acid blasts of lime and mustard seed — the standard by which others are measured. 811 Roeder Rd., Silver Spring. 301-588-2225.
How good is Nazret? When I was chatting with some diners at a different Ethiopian restaurant, they all suggested I needed to try Nazret. The place is not easy to find: It’s around the back of Build America Plaza, in a poorly marked storefront. It’s worth the effort. Chef Zewdu Mekonnen has been trained in the classical cuisines of Europe, but his specialty is the food of his native Ethiopia. He’s not trying to refine Ethiopian cooking as much as he’s honoring it with quality ingredients, the hallmark of every good chef. His buttery tibs, his ropy kitfo, his well-salted gomen greens: They’re all the efforts of a master cook. 3821-D S. George Mason Dr., Falls Church. 703-347-9911.
Trailblazers invite detractors, and Etete was no different when the Ninth Street institution decided to hire a chef with fine-dining credentials to reimagine Ethiopian cuisine for the young-and-hungry set that has gentrified the neighborhood. At least one critic told me he no longer considers Etete a proper Ethiopian restaurant. It’s true that chef Christopher Roberson borrows inspiration from other cultures — Japan for the soy-glazed derek tibs, Mexico for the berbere chicken tacos wrapped in injera — but the results have shown that Ethiopian cuisine is more open to foreign influence than previously suspected. I’m a devoted fan. 1942 Ninth St. NW. 202-232-7600.
I had visited the new Zenebech only once before the fire. The highlight of my late-summer meal was the banatu, a stacked dish that combines kitfo, sauteed beef tibs, fresh cheese, a boiled egg and the soaked-and-sliced-up pieces of injera known as firfir. It’s the Ethiopian equivalent of lasagna, layered and lusty, but without a defined form. I practically panted from the chile pepper heat. I knew I was in the presence of greatness from this dish alone. Colleague Tom Sietsema basically confirmed it with his two-star (“good”) review in October. 2420 18th St. NW. 202-667-4700.
Note: Queen of Sheba, No. 3 in the previous rankings, was not considered for this list. The Shaw restaurant recently changed owners and chefs, and it still needs time to settle into its new persona.