Harar, a city in eastern Ethiopia, is known as “the walled city.” Harar the restaurant, hidden in plain sight on El Cajon Boulevard, just off Texas Street (2432 El Cajon Blvd. in North Park), is known for humble, plentiful and authentic Ethiopian dishes.
Though it might not yet have as widespread appeal or awareness as other types of dining, Ethiopian cuisine is no longer only for the most adventurous of eaters. The food, heavy on vegetables and exotically spiced, is hearty and accessible, and Harar serves up heaping portions in a friendly environment that even the most tentative culinary explorers would find wonderful.
Come to Harar with clean hands. As with any Ethiopian restaurant, there are no utensils. Your spoon is a soft piece of bread, called injera, which you'll use to scoop and grab and wrap all kinds of delicious delicacies. Injera is made from a fermented flour, so the soft, bubbly pieces have a tangy taste reminiscent of sourdough. A basket arrives at your table filled with cool, spongy and delightfully stretchy (yes, I play with my food) strips of injera, rolled up like socks in your delicates drawer. Tear off bits of it and go to town, my friends.
I highly recommend the Harar Special, whether you're a first-timer or an old hand at Ethiopian cuisine. The special is a large plate heaped with servings of seven different dishes featured on Harar's menu. Many dishes are of a stew-like consistency, called wot, and can be filled with anything from meat to lentils, all heavy on onion and liberally spiced with things like ginger, cardamom and a chile powder that adds warmth without necessarily being spicy.
My favorite item is the Yedoro Wot, a traditional chicken dish you'll find in most Ethiopian restaurants. The chicken is stewed with plenty of onion and tomatoes but brings a completely different and zesty flavor from lemon and cardamom. I mostly wanted to just stick my face in my plate and inhale all the different flavors, but I thought I might offend, so I chose to eat it instead.
Vegetarians and even vegans will find plenty of delights, like the Yemeser Wot and Yeater Alicha—lentils and split peas, respectively. The lentils were almost paste-like, but spicy and absolutely succulent, a word not usually associated with the legume. I also loved the vibrant and rich split peas and found myself waxing on and on to a staunchly carnivorous friend that he could eat an all-veggie meal at Harar and not leave hungry.
If I had one disappointment—and it was a small one—it was the Yebeg Alicha, or lamb stew. I love ground lamb, but the meat was overpowered by all the other rich flavors in the dish. It tasted good, but lamb-lovers might feel something's missing.
In my never-ending quest to try every delicious beverage the world has to offer, I couldn't pass up a glass of the Ethio Honey Wine, a heady way to wash down the rich spices of my meal. The honey wine probably won't rank high with persnickety oenophiles, as it's almost cloyingly sweet. But the alcohol content is most certainly apparent, and I found it to be a perfect complement to the tang and sizzle of the various treats on my lunch plate.
Harar's front room is small; you're basically entering a tiny house. But, they've also added a decent-size, if somewhat creaky and rustic, enclosed “patio” in the back. On the day I was there, I was the only patron, but there's plenty of space to bring a rowdy group of pals. Head over on a Friday night for the $12 all-you-can-eat dinner buffet and sample the flavors of the walled city (or walled-in house) of Harar.