Asmara Eritrean Restaurant4155 University Ave.City Heights619-677-3999
After a lunch in Oak Park a while back, a friend and I decided to head home by rambling west on surface streets instead of the freeway so I could indulge in one of my favorite pastimes: cruising for food. The long drag of University Avenue is perfect for rubbernecking at restaurant signs and storefronts, and a friend had mentioned that he'd driven past a new Eritrean restaurant called Asmara that looked interesting, so we wanted to chart it on our mental map for a return eating expedition. A few nights later, toward the end of another group dinner, the conversation turned, as it always does among people with food on the brain, to what and where we were going to eat next, and we decided to try Asmara.
Eritrean cuisine is similar to Ethiopian, though the countries have a tumultuous history and a still-tenuous relationship. They share a border and many food traditions, though the names of regional dishes may vary. Restaurants representing East Africa are pretty scarce, but there's a handful currently operating around town. Most of them are concentrated in City Heights, San Diego's most ethnically diverse neighborhood.
Even those who require a fancier atmosphere to enjoy their food (seriously, really?) would find little to fault with Asmara's interior. The tables are topped with white tablecloths and flowers, soft lighting is supplied by hanging lamps and votive candles and the seating is cushy. Even the bathroom is nicer than those found in pricier neighborhoods. The only elements that take you out of the tranquil scene are the flat-screen TVs that play a continuous loop of Eritrean music videos.
Appropriately, they've got Asmara beer and tej, a mead-like honey wine that I can never manage more than a few sips of because it's so sugary-sweet. We started with a couple orders of sambusas, triangles of flaky pastry that hold either a lentil, onion and jalapeño filling or a combination of ground beef and onions. Both were served with a spicy chile sauce and were flawless.
I've come to prefer eating vegetarian in Horn of Africa restaurants, as a lot of the meat choices, while tasty, have a dry texture. A friend and I split one of the combinations, an assortment of spiced vegetables stewed to a soft fall-apartness. There were lentils cooked with onions, tomatoes and hot peppers, a tumeric-scented cabbage, a carrot-and-potato mixture and a velvety stew of collard greens and spinach.
Another friend ordered the meat combination and let us sample off her plate. I particularly liked the lamb zighini, simmered in a tomato sauce with dried chilies and a collection of warm spices. Both the meat and vegetable combinations come on platters lined with huge unfurled rounds of injera—a spongy, springy crepe-like bread with a mild tangy flavor—alongside crisp salads of cucumber, onions, lettuce and tomato to offset all the yielding consistencies. An extra plate piled with rolls of injera is also provided, so you can tear off pieces of the bread and use your fingertips to dip up bits of food. Because it's usually verboten to use your hands to eat in polite company, there is a certain pleasure in disregarding the silverware put before you and instead using the tools you were born with.
There is some etiquette to it, though; It's probably best not to hunch over your food and employ the two-handed shoveling method.
I was happy to see another friend order the beef tartare, called kitfo, although our well-meaning waiter kept trying to convince him to order something else for fear that he didn't understand the raw-meat nature of the dish. We assured the waiter that we were down with that, and what arrived was beautifully presented—a small clay pot heaped with minced raw beef, darkened by a deep red chili powder and warmed just slightly by an herb-infused clarified butter and topped with crumbles of fresh cheese. It was one of the coolest dishes I've tried in a while.
Asmara is family-run: Our waiter's brother and his wife own the restaurant and lots of friends from church and the local East African community stop in often for a bite of food or for a strong African coffee from a gleaming espresso machine. I think we're all hoping the restaurant sticks around for a while, providing regulars with familiar tastes and the rest of us with new discoveries.