The building housing Harar Ethiopian Restaurant (2432 El Cajon Blvd., City Heights) is barely more than a shack, though a colorful one. It wouldn't look entirely out of place at the perilous edges of Tijuana, or Addis Ababa. It's not clear that its large dining room would withstand a heavy rain (not always much of a concern in Ethiopia).
At the heart of the cuisine is injera, a crepe-like and spongy flatbread that accounts for two thirds of the caloric intake of Ethiopians. It is to Ethiopia the same as corn tortillas are to Mexico, or pasta to Italy. Injera is made from teff, an ancient, iron-rich, low-gluten grain (a totally gluten-free version was made for us on one trip) grown in Ethiopia's highlands.
Injera not only stands in for bread in Ethiopia, but also for plates. The remarkable variety of stews that constitute the core of Ethiopian cuisine come to the table served on a massive stretch of injera. Bread? Check. Serving utensil? Check.
The best choice for your first trip to the restaurant is the Harar Special. Like most Ethiopian food, it arrives at your table with a platter covered in injera, which, in turn, is covered with little piles of each of the dishes. The Harar Special includes a variety of meat stews and vegetable dishes.
Doro wat, a spicy chicken-leg stew, is Ethiopia's national dish. At Harar, sega wat (spicy beef and onion stew) is better, its heat coming from berbere, the classic Ethiopian red-chile-based spice blend. Better still is yebeg alecha, a mild lamb stew with ginger, garlic and a kiss of chile peppers and soft spices. It was the best of the meat dishes.
The Harar Special also included four vegetarian dishes, each of which is also offered on the Vegetarian Combination: misir wot (red lentils in a pepper sauce), ater kik (split peas with onions, garlic and herbs), gomen wot (collard greens with garlic and ginger) and yatakelt wot (cabbage, carrots and potatoes with onions, ginger and garlic).
The standout for me was the ater kik. A lot like an Indian split-pea daal, the combination of the earthy legumes, ginger and turmeric made for a rich mouth-feel and deeply satisfying dish. The gomen wot was also quite good, an Ethiopian counterpart to the South's greens in pot liquor.
All of the food at Harar is—taken on its own—hearty and rich. But each dish is made to blend with the injera. The flavor profile, in the end, is adjusted by the injera's slightly sour flavor (think sourdough bread). The result is food that is comforting but also exciting.
The overall experience at Harar is like that, too—comforting and exotic. Especially in the rear dining room; it's as if you wandered into someone's backyard halfway around the world, and the host treated you like an honored guest.