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Restaurant reviews: Dig into African tastes in Salt Lake City

Published May 24, 2012 11:12 am

Dining out • Family style portions, eclectic options mark two SLC restaurants.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Until just recently, Salt Lake City had only one African restaurant. Now there are four Ethiopian dining options, thanks to the opening of the Red Sea Ethiopian and Eritrean Cafe in Sugar House and Mahider Ethiopian Restaurant near downtown.

If you're unfamiliar with Ethiopian fare, here's a primer: Injera is the spongy, fermented, crepe-like bread, made with gluten-free teff, that's ripped into pieces and used to eat the wot (also referred to as the wat or watt). The wot is a thick stew of colorful and spicy meat or vegetables, typically made with an Ethiopian spice mixture called berbere and placed on top of more injera. Silverware isn't traditionally used, although it's provided by request.

Ethiopian cuisine, and its neighboring Eritrean flavors, are best enjoyed with a group of diners to sample more items family-style and, which in the spirit of the culture, also builds bonds of loyalty and friendship.

Red Sea • Opened in March, Red Sea Ethiopian and Eritrean Cafe has found loyal customers in its hidden location on the north side of 2100 South, around the corner from Guthrie Bicycles.

Service is, shall we say, relaxed. This is mostly because Rozina Bahlibi wears many hats, including owner, cook, hostess, server and cashier. This means she'll be with your food from kitchen to table and back again — although one evening a server appeared about a third of the way through our meal so the pacing picked up noticeably. No matter though, because Bahlibi is a delight to talk to when she's not in a hurry preparing your meal.

The atmosphere is clean and welcoming although much too quiet. Some light background music would make conversations with your dining companions far more enjoyable than the hushed whispers we felt compelled to speak to each other while trying to ignore other diners' discussions.

Red Sea's menu is small but offers enough to sink your teeth into. Start with the meat sambusas (2 for $2.50), which are nicely fried packets of ground beef and spices with surprising depth of flavors.

If you are dining with two or more people, your meal will arrive family-style on a single tray covered in injera with a bit of green salad. More injera is served on the side.

The kelwa mix with chicken ($10.95) highlighted cubes of poultry sautéed with flavorful greens and onions. Not only was it a beautiful hue on the bed of injera, it was our favorite dish, and provided an entirely different layer of flavor to our meal.

Chicken stew ($11.50) was a juicy drumstick covered in a spicy berbere sauce and served with a hardboiled egg and side of ibe, a cheese with a texture similar to feta but that tasted closer to cottage cheese. Our only challenge here was how to share the egg using just injera and our hands.

The kelwa beef ($11.75) with peppers and onions didn't fare as well, as the meat was extremely overcooked and tough on both occasions I tried it.

A staple in the Ethiopian and Eritrean diet, vegetables often take center stage. Try the vegetarian combination ($11.75) featuring okra, zucchini and a vegetable alicha, a slow-cooked curry, which featured perfectly cooked potatoes chunks with carrots and bell peppers.

If you love okra, Red Sea is the place to go because the sheer quantity delivered was somewhat overwhelming. As we were remarking about our okra overload, we heard the table next to us order the same combination but ask to substitute something else for the okra, a request that was happily approved. I'll likely go that route on my next visit.

Red Sea serves a small selection of wines for $5 per class or $20 a bottle and some local beers at $4 a bottle. Sodas are $1.

Mahider Ethiopian Restaurant • In contrast to Red Sea, Mahider Ethiopian Restaurant is a bustling hub of activity in a strip mall on State Street. One evening, Ethiopian music videos played on the TVs at either end of the mural-adorned restaurant while nearly every seat was filled with groups of diners and several large families.

Opened in late September 2011, Mahider is owned and managed by Sleshi Tadesse, who will likely be your host, server, cashier and knowledge-base for all things Ethiopian. His friendly demeanor only adds to the enjoyment of a meal at Mahider.

Again, the pace of service is not what most Americans might expect, but with good company at the table and a large menu to order from, the additional time is almost necessary here. Unfortunately, because the restaurant was so busy, our table was being handled by Tadesse as well as another server, and we were asked the same questions by each of them at least twice. It took several requests to both to get our drink orders delivered.

We began with a selection of Ethiopian beers — a delightful, carameled Hakim Stout ($4) and a disappointing American-style lager called St. George Beer ($4). Another authentic option is tej, an Ethiopian honey mead wine ($5 per bottle, serves two).

With so many options on the menu, it became clear that a number of combination orders would be a wise choice. The vegetarian combination ($8.99) included gomen, a tasty collard green sautéd with garlic, jalapeño peppers and spices, as well as a selection of lively lentil and chick pea watt mixtures and fesolia — a vegetable stew containing string beans, carrots, tomatoes and onions lightly seasoned with garlic, ginger and turmeric.

The Taste of Mahider platter ($24.99 for two) included some of the vegetable selections above plus two beef dishes and a chicken choice. The yedoro wot or chicken stew delivered moist chicken legs swimming in a thick and hearty berbere-seasoned sauce, while the chunky beef stew (yesega wot) brimmed with heat.

When placing our order for kitfo ($10.99), we were warned repeatedly that the meat would be raw (like steak tartar).

The beef is finely minced and prepared in mitmita, a spicy seasoning using the African bird's eye chile pepper and clarified butter, which is then mixed with kaseret herbs and injera to soak up the meat juices. Our table considered it a successful representation.

A sampling of desserts, including baklava ($2.99), carrot cake ($3.49) and cheesecake ($3.99), round out the menu's plentiful choices. And if you ever have two or three hours to spare, try the coffee ceremony that celebrates this all-important ingredient in the Ethiopian culture.

Now that there are additional African restaurants to choose from, it's easy to see how each will develop its own following based on locations, flavors and atmosphere. For smaller portions and a quieter dining experience, try Red Sea. For lively surroundings and more selection, Mahider Ethiopian Restaurant is the place to go — be sure to bring friends and your appetite.

Salt Lake Tribune restaurant reviewer Heather L. King blogs at http://www.examiner.com/lunch-in-salt-lake-city/heather-king. Send comments about this review to food@sltrib.com or post a response at facebook.com/tribremix. —

Hhj

Red Sea Cafe

Food • Hhj

Mood • Hhj

Service • Hhj

Noise • b

Red Sea brings Ethiopian and Eritrean dining to Sugar House, offering vegetarian, meat and poultry dishes in a quiet respite off 2100 South.

Location • 815 E. 2100 South, Suite B, Salt Lake City; 801-486-1140

Online • http://www.facebook.com/RedSeaCafe

Hours • Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m.

Prices • $-$$

Children's Menu • No

Liquor • Beer and wine

Corkage • $7

Reservations • Yes

Takeout • Yes

Wheelchair access • No

Outdoor dining • No

Onsite parking • Yes

Credit cards • Visa, MasterCard, Discover —

HH

Mahider Ethiopian Restaurant

Food • HH

Mood • HH

Service • HH

Noise • bb

Serves a large selection of African foods, such as kitfo and tej wine, including vegetarian and meat selections. Combination plates served in family-style portions are your best bet.

Location • 1465 S. State St., No. 7, Salt Lake City; 801-975-1111

Online • http://www.facebook.com/pages/Mahider-Ethiopian-Restaurant/196543583754987

Hours • Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Prices • $$

Children's menu • Yes

Liquor • Beer and wine

Corkage • No fee

Reservations • Yes

Takeout • Yes

Wheelchair access • Yes

Outdoor dining • No

Onsite parking • Yes

Credit cards • All major