When I tell people Ethiopian food is my favorite, I'm often met with a blank stare. It's understandable, particularly in Miami, where you can't find this kind of cuisine within a 200-mile radius. The closest eatery is Nile Ethiopian in Orlando, tucked away off the madness of International Drive.
So, what the hell is it? It's a delicious mashup of spicy, stew-like dishes, all served atop and eaten with a spongy flatbread called injera. Red lentils, split peas, cabbage (and lamb, beef, and chicken for meat eaters) are all standard additions to this East African fare.
And trust me, eating it is worth every damn minute of the three-hour drive to Orlando.
Miami wasn't always without Ethiopian options. We had a restaurant or two at one time, but they faded into oblivion right along with a million other Magic City eateries. The last one, Sheba, closed several years ago, and much to my chagrin, there are no signs of any to come.
The good news is Orlando's sole joint is exceptional. From service to execution, they do Ethiopian right, and it's always a pleasure eating there.
Because I'm an herbivore, I always stick with Nile's vegetarian combination, an assortment of various meatless dishes, as follows:
- Kik alicha: A mild stew-like dish of yellow split peas cooked with onions, garlic, and green peppers.
- Misir wat: Red lentils cooked with onions, garlic, and red pepper sauce.
- Gomen wat: Moist and tender collard greens cooked with onions, garlic, and oil.
- Tikel gomen: An intensely flavorful mix of cabbage and carrots cooked with garlic and ginger (by far my favorite).
It's served on a piece of injera, which, honestly, looks kind of like a dish towel. It's grayish, it's flat, and it has the texture of a kitchen sponge. Don't be put off. Made with a fermented flour called teff, it's slightly sour and pairs perfectly with their standard spices. The meal also comes with a basket of the bread, each piece looking like a drab Fruit Roll-Up. You tear off little pieces to use as a scoop for the other food on your plate -- no silverware. The food is typically also served family style, so it's to your advantage to make sure your dining companions wash their paws before dinner.
All of the above dishes are fairly mild, but there are plenty of spicy Ethiopian options, including doro wat (a chicken stew), among others. Ask your server for advice. He or she will be happy to oblige.
Speaking of service: It's stellar. Once on a particularly trying Orlando trip, I showed up at the restaurant for takeout. It was closed despite what I'd read online. One of the owners was pulling up just as I was sinking into despair, and she told me they'd changed their hours. But when she saw my look of absolute dejection, she offered to cook for me anyway.
Now that's service.
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So next time you're passing through town before or after Disney, skip Medieval Times and IHOP and opt for some Ethiopian grub instead. You might be pleasantly surprised. But bring some wet wipes. You'll need 'em.
Follow Hannah on Twitter @hannahalexs.