Some foods instantly become part of my regular meal lineup from the moment I taste them, and some never make it onto the roster. Other foods take a little more time to catch on. That was the deal with Ethiopian cuisine. When I first tried it, I don't think my still-immature palate was prepared for the intensely flavored food, but I've had a couple of years of intensive training--er, eating--so, when I met up with some friends at Red Sea Ethiopian Restaurant for another go, my taste buds were primed and ready. This time, something clicked, and I was hooked after just one lunch.
So immediately infatuated was I that I requested Ethiopian food the very next weekend while up in Oakland visiting a friend. Her neighborhood, which boasts at least four Ethiopian restaurants within a two-mile radius (compared with two or three spots in the entire city of San Diego), also had a place called Red Sea, so I thought I'd try it. I'm happy to report that my meal at San Diego's Red Sea was much better.
As my Ethiopian craving was still in full effect when I returned from Oakland, I ventured back to the City Heights restaurant, located just a block or so west of the Tower Bar.
I'm no herbivore, but the vegetarian food at Red Sea is tasty enough to convert the most ardent meat eater. The sambusas, similar to Indian samosas--and just as tempting--are thin pastry shells filled with a spicy lentil mixture and fried to a flaky crisp. When I went with three friends, our main courses were served family-style on one large round tray lined with a giant circle of injera, a traditional Ethiopian flatbread made from a native millet grain. Resembling a thick crepe, the bread has a hint of sourdough flavor and is studded with tiny hollows that look like the topside of a pancake when it's ready to be flipped. This spongy texture keeps the injera airy and tender and allows it to absorb the savory juices of the stews, or wats, that are placed atop the bread in a ring around the circumference. All dishes come with a basket of extra injera to be torn into pieces and used as scoops to transfer the stews from plate to mouth.
I ordered the vegetarian combo, consisting of portions of three dishes: lentils stewed with Berbere, a traditional Ethiopian spice blend comprising cloves, chilies and ginger; steamed collared greens with garlic and green peppers; and creamy yellow split peas seasoned with onion and garlic. The split peas were so good that I went home and looked up the recipe. My friends ordered meat combos and let me taste a bit of each. The stewed meats, including lamb and beef, were slightly dry yet still flavorful, but the stewed chicken in red pepper sauce was moist and meltingly tender. In the center of our tray was a lightly dressed green salad with onions and tomato that provided refreshing crispness in between bites of rich stew.
We went through two baskets of injera as we dipped into in our own meals and each others', and though the communal, utensil-free eating experience was great fun, we refrained from feeding each other despite a line on our placemats that instructed us to do so with 'a twinkle in your eye and a smile.' I couldn't resist sampling the injera 'plate,' which had soaked up the combined flavors of all our dishes.
In addition to full-bodied Ethiopian coffee, Red Sea also serves tej, a fermented honey wine. Its sweetness is supposed to offset the spicy food, but I found it to be a little too syrupy. I prefer the pale, yeasty Harar beer or the smooth and dark Hakim Stout.
Beyond being a restaurant, Red Sea is also a hangout for the local East African community, whose members come to listen to music, work on computers and share a meal. Shimeles, the mellow and friendly owner, has decorated the casual room with photos and paintings of famous athletes and other notable Ethiopians and is happy to help newbies navigate the menu. If you haven't tried Ethiopian food before, give this authentic and affordable eating experience a chance, and don't be surprised when it captivates you, too.
Red Sea Ethiopian is located at 4717 University Heights Ave. in City Heights, 619-285-9722.