The smell of frying onions—the base for Ethiopian cuisine’s robust, long-simmered wats, or stews—wafts from the dark-painted, two-story townhouses that line 9th Street in Washington, D.C. More than 300,000 Ethiopians live in the Washington area a figure that’s grown exponentially in the past decade—making for one of the largest ethnic pockets in the region and also for a rich, thriving dining scene. Once clustered along 18th Street in the Adams Morgan district, Ethiopian restaurants have migrated to the east end of U Street (the former “Black Broadway”). These are second-generation establishments, succeeding the pioneers who set up shop in the early 1980s, and they’re booming. On a block of 9th Street just below U, there are six Ethiopian restaurants; along U Street there are half a dozen more; and a few are turning out some of the finest Ethiopian food in the country.
The sleek, modern Etete has not succumbed to what many Ethiopians call, with wry scorn, “Europian” cooking—lacking heat and spice. When he opened the restaurant four years ago, owner Yared Tesfaye implored his mother, Tiwaltengus Shenegelgn—etete means “mama” in Amharic—”to cook just like you do for us at home.” Shenegelgn, who was the cook at Fasika’s (the city’s best Ethiopian restaurant ten years ago), is as much a perfectionist as some four-star chefs. A smiling, doting presence in the dining room in her white chef’s toque, behind the scenes she upbraids waitresses for tarrying in getting her kitfo, an Ethiopian tartare, to the table. Her doro wat, a berbere-spiced stew that includes a chicken and a hard-boiled egg, takes five or six hours to cook and begins much the same way a French onion soup does (with the slow caramelization of onions). The result is every bit as full-bodied and rich. Her secret ingredient: a splash of Cognac.
The best Ethiopian cooking is home cooking, and Queen Makeda, the chartreuse townhouse next door, strives to reproduce a knowing, grandmotherly air. The cook, Kafye Demssie, often makes the rounds, gently admonishing diners who haven’t cleaned their plates. Her recipes are direct and deeply satisfying. For instance, her rendition of shiro, a yellow split-pea stew, is as lushly creamy as a velouté, with a cinnamony perfume that lingers long after the first bite. And thick, bone-in hunks of lamb are submerged in an alicha—a spicy, yellow-colored sauce made from turmeric, garlic, and onion.
For years, white Washingtonians have been reluctant to embrace Ethiopian food, wringing their hands instead at the dearth of good pizza and bagel options. But that might be changing. Now, Etete’s Tesfaye has to contend with charges of catering to whites. At dinnertime some nights, the only dark-skinned faces in the restaurant are those of the staff. Like his baby blue silk shirt, still neat and pressed after a sweltering day, Tesfaye remains unruffled by such carping. “I’ve got people coming to eat at our restaurant from places like Frederick, forty-five minutes away,” he says. “They like our food. How is that a bad thing?”
Etete Restaurant 1942 9th St, NW (202-232-7600; eteterestaurant.com)
Queen Makeda Ethiopian Restaurant 1917 9th St, NW (202-232-5665)