Muzita Bistro4651 Park Blvd.University Heights619-546-7900
If you don't have much of an appetite when you arrive at Muzita Bistro, don't worry—you'll likely go from zero to hungry in no time. The aromas emanating from the kitchen are intoxicating, especially because the restaurant, set in a cozy bungalow, is so small and snug that the air is perpetually saturated with the heady, warm smells of spices and chilies. Even tables out on the patio get a blast of the culinary perfume as it wafts out the front door.
Muzita Bistro is owned and operated by a local Eritrean family, but it's unlike most of the East African restaurants I've been to. Here, the emphasis on decor and ambiance is equal to the attention given to the food; fine-art photography decorates the walls, and candlelight abounds. It's a difference you can feel in the overall dining experience, and it's also reflected in the price, though each time I've dined here, I've left satisfied and not too much the poorer for it.
And though I'm a meat eater through and through, I prefer the vegetarian dishes at Muzita; the flavors are more complex and are superior to their meat counterparts. The Tsebhi Dorho, chicken braised with a spice blend called berbere, was fine but unmemorable, and the Beggie Kilwa, described on the menu as rare leg of lamb, arrived as thoroughly cooked, dry nuggets of meat in a spicy Serrano chili sauce. I would, however, readily reorder the Prawns Kilwa, four plump prawns marinated in honey wine and herbs and topped with a pan sauce of aromatic vegetables, white wine and awaze, a fiery chili paste.
But let's start back at the beginning. Birsn Korosh, a mildly spicy dip, has a creamy texture similar to hummus but is made with red lentils. It comes with fried strips of injera, the traditional pancake-like bread that serves as both plate and utensil. It's delicious when fresh, but when fried, its porous surface soaks up too much oil and makes it unpleasantly greasy. We asked for soft rolls of the bread to scoop up the tasty spread.
Many people don't like okra because of its texture, but even haters would have to concede that when coated with teff, the nutty grain used to make injera, and fried, it's easier to love, especially with a garnish of sweet roasted tomatoes and caramelized onions.
Each entrée comes with a side dish and salad, and if you and your group eat family-style, it all gets piled onto a colorful, communal plate lined with a wide circle of injera bread. The side dishes are all vegetarian and delicious; larger portions of each are also offered as main dishes. I particularly liked the Hamli, an earthy braise of spinach and collard greens, and the Alitcha Atakilti, stewed seasonal vegetables that are often bought at local farmers markets. Shiro, ground chickpeas flavored with garlic, onion, ginger and lots of spices, arrives still bubbling and molten hot in a cast-iron pot. The friendly servers are happy to bring you your fill of injera, although here you have to ask for it roll by roll instead of being presented with a generous basketful like at other Abyssinian restaurants that I frequent in City Heights.
Ethiopean beer is probably the thing to drink here; the Harar stout's roasty sweetness is nice with the wheaty tang of injera, while the crisp, pilsner-like Berbere beer refreshes your palate after such heavy spices. Muzita does try to placate the mixed-drink crowd with soju—the cocktail of wine-and-beer-only places—which has about half the alcohol by volume as vodka. Fusion also reigns on the dessert list, with homemade but standard sweets like tiramisu, crème brulée and chocolate pot de crème.Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.