Kirk will soon be back posting about his incredible trip to Vietnam & Cambodia. Cathy will soon post more about her culinary adventures. Other folks help out on this blog as well. Today, though, it is ed (from Yuma) writing about a new restaurant he just visited in San Diego.
When I lived in San Diego about 10 years ago, I delighted in the vibrant Ethiopian/East African community in the city. While my previous exposure to their cuisine had been limited, I loved Ethiopian food. Unfortunately, the Ethiopian restaurant scene in America's Finest City left much to be desired.
My favorite Ethiopian restaurant (called Asmara) closed. Another place that served good food had virtually no customers, perhaps because no one would have expected a restaurant called Legare to be an Ethiopian restaurant; the warm and friendly owner explained that everyone in Addis Ababa knew that the best restaurant food was at the train station, which being built by the French, was called Le Gare. But for those of us not from Addis Ababa . . .
So I approached Asmara (no connection to its deceased namesake) with a certain level of trepidation. First of all, it calls itself an Eritrean restaurant, not Ethiopian. Eritrean cuisine? I know that Ethiopia and Eritrea have been joined and separated and warring and at peace at various times in my lifetime. So how would this food relate to Ethiopian cuisine? What's more, the restaurant is so new that workers were painting over the name of the previous occupant on the awning above the main entrance as we were entering:
But when I walked in, I was able to leave my trepidation at the door. This was clearly a professional operation. There was no thick cloud of incense smoke or tables of men playing cards in darkened rooms oblivious to their surroundings. Instead, everything about the decor of the sizable restaurant said clean, modern, stylish, and professional:
Before we go any further, let me apologize for the lack of great food pictures. My old buddy Greg and I were on a guy's eating trip to San Diego, and we were fortunate to get together with Dave and Michelle, friends from Jamul, who enjoy gourmandizing as much as Greg and I do. So when two large trays of various dishes arranged on sheets of injera arrived, it was hard to keep everyone from attacking the food while I was hurriedly taking pictures. (Remember this important life lesson: always blame others for your deficiencies.)
We had ordered a meat combination, a chicken dish (called here tsebhi dorho - but identical to the douro wat in Ethiopian restaurants), a veggie combo, and shiro, a dish of roasted ground chickpeas with seasonings. Thoughtfully, they put all the vegetarian items on one tray and all of the meat dishes (with accompanying salads) on another, so that any vegetarian would be spared morsels of injera lubricated with meat sauce or juices. This picture of part of the meat platter gives you an idea of how the food is served:
We were all very impressed with the injera, the bubbly sourdough flatbread full of tef flour and flavor. It had a pronounced sour tang and seemed a little thinner and less doughy than other versions I have eaten. For those of you unfamiliar with Horn of Africa cuisine, the injera is the starch, the plate, and the eating utensil. One picks up bits and bites of various foods with pieces of injera held between the fingers. In addition to the injera that covered the platters, more injera wrapped up around itself was also served on the side. However, as everyone who has eaten Ethiopian or Eritrean food is aware, the best tasting injera is that which has lain under the entrees and soaked up all their essential goodness.
Even though the meat combo was supposed to have only two different items, we received a chunky cubed beef and a similar lamb item as well as a longer cooked, falling-apart-tender lamb stew. The two cubed meat dishes looked like this (but clearer):
All the meat items were tasty and richly seasoned, but the fiery chicken dish may have been the star of the meat platter, even though it contained only one chicken leg and one boiled egg (sort of a mother and child reunion):
Similarly, we got more than expected with the veggie combination, which had two different lentil dishes (one darker and more highly spiced than the other), a cabbage and carrot dish, a collard and spinach dish, and a surprise yellow split pea stew, something not even listed on the menu. Except for the one lentil dish, the spicing on all the vegetarian items tended to be more subtle. Please do not click to enlarge any of these fuzzy pictures; they won't get any better -- they will only get bigger:
The most impressive of the items on the vegetarian platter was the Shiro, which came in a covered bowl so we could continue to add more on top of the injera. It had layers of complexities. The nuttiness of the roasted chickpeas and the
Ethiopian Eritrean spices contributed to the overall taste. I had been somewhat hesitant to order this item, but it was really good (if not really pretty):
Not counting the cost of the Eritrean and Ethiopian beers that we ordered (my advice: order more conventional beers) the cost of the dinner was about $10 a person. None of the entrées is over $10. I felt that the dinner was a very good value, particularly considering the pleasant setting.
Is this a great restaurant? Well, I don't know. We didn't try either of the beef dishes which can be ordered raw (gored-gored and kitfo). However, everything we were served was well prepared and well seasoned. Only the rather ordinary and underdressed salads (containing fresh jalapeno slices to get one's attention) were disappointing. I can't recall ever having better East African food in San Diego. This would certainly be a great place for someone who had never tried Horn of Africa cuisine before. On the other hand, the menu at Asmara doesn't appear to break new ground, and most items listed seem similar to those at most conventional Ethiopian restaurants, except that some have different names.
Perhaps the most unusual thing on the menu is the weekend special, spaghetti with your choice of meat or tomato sauce. This pasta is a reminder that Eritrea spent many years as an Italian colony. In Ethiopia, on the other hand, the Italians were hated invaders whose brief rule had little effect on that nation's cuisine.
Asmara Eritrean Restaurant, 4155 University Ave, (619) 677-3999. Open daily 11 AM - 10 PM.