Awash Ethiopian Restaurant 4979 El Cajon Blvd. City Heights 619-583-9225
When it comes to love, it's much easier to get over people than food. When I was studying in France, my good friend Cat fell in love with an Ethiopian man named Yete. Yete was tall and handsome with fantastic dreadlocks, but he turned out to be a cheat, a liar and still married to a Parisian doctor. But even though he was a scumbag, and it took Cat years to get over him, part of me will always be glad she met him. If she hadn't, I might never have begun my own long-term love affair-with Ethiopian food.
A traditional Ethiopian meal involves many thick, spicy, earth-colored stews served family-style in big dollops over a spongy sourdough flatbread called injera. To fully enjoy the experience, you have to be willing to surrender your utensils, share everything and let everybody's hands touch the same food. (To those who get queasy when chips are double-dipped: this is not your bag.)
The ultimate communal dinner, everyone reaches in to one sombrero-sized platter covered with puddles of tantalizing gloop and greedily scoops up steaming mouthfuls with strips of injera, stopping only long enough to gasp for air, lick errant goodness off fingers and gulp honey wine. Heaven is what gets eaten last-the soggy layer of injera on the bottom that has soaked up all the different juices and holds the essence of their flavors.
I am delighted equally by the flavors and the experience of eating Ethiopian food. In my desire to re-visit that unique culinary culture, I've grubbed down on a lot of Ethiopian food in a lot of different cities. Awash is the first place I've tried in San Diego, and it was just as delicious (if not more so) than I've had anywhere else, and it came at a strikingly affordable price.
The food at Awash is without question their strongest draw. The City Heights location is a little dodgy, and the bars on the windows outside aren't exactly inviting. The interior is simply and inexpensively decorated with long, white, rasta-striped drapes, wooden animal carvings and posters of Ethiopia and its people. The atmosphere could be more elegant with dimmer lights and placemats that aren't so sticky, but all those details faded quickly once the food arrived.
For an appetizer we tried the Ethiopian take on Indian samosas, the three of us sharing one filled with lentils and another filled with ground beef. At $1 each, we should have had more. They were perfectly warm and crisp on the outside, and the fillings were superb. Our trio couldn't reach a unanimous conclusion about which one was better, but we were 2-1 in favor of the beef.
For entrées we ordered one lamb stew called Yebeg Alicha, a vegetarian combination (four veggie-based stews, including lentil, split pea, collard greens and cabbage) and a beef combination (three variations of marinated and stewed meat). The entrées were $7.50 apiece, which we recognized as a killer deal as soon as we saw the portions. One more person could have been stuffed by everything we couldn't force ourselves to finish.
Of the eight dishes we sampled, our trio agreed on four clear standouts. We had declined the lamb combination thinking lamb to be too game-y for our taste, but we found the Yebeg Alicha surprisingly delicious-delicate and tender with a mild sweet garlic flavor. The collard greens, the first pile to completely disappear, were divine in their buttery smoothness. The lentils, our second favorite vegetable dish, had a wonderful texture and a spicier flavor.
Our favorite beef dish, Yesiga Tibs, was boldly seasoned and had a thicker texture than the other two, which were a little drier and reminiscent of carne asada. Even the injera seemed to be more flavorful than at other places in our memories.
Post-dinner research revealed that combinations of coriander, cardamom, fenugreek, ginger, turmeric and paprika usually flavor most Ethiopian dishes. All the food we sampled at Awash successfully and artfully blended these rather common Middle Eastern staples in a mysterious and intoxicating way.
In the end, we were too full to sample the baklava (the only dessert available), but the honey wine we had with dinner was almost as good as dessert itself. A shade darker than common white wine, it's served at room temperature and tastes a lot more like honey than it does like wine.
I'm sure my love for all Ethiopian restaurants will cause me to never be 100 percent faithful to Awash, but it's very good to know that when I am overcome with the desire for exotic flavors and communal finger foods, an inexpensive and extremely satisfying Ethiopian food booty-call is very close to home.