First off, let’s get one thing straight: yes, there is food in Ethiopia. Describing Mebrat Café to my friends, I ran into the same tired Live Aid-era joke each time. Besides the restaurateur and his wife who had raved about this place, nobody I spoke to had ever tried Eritrean cuisine (which I had mistakenly called Ethiopian—major faux pas, it turned out, since the two countries have been at war for more than a decade). But through the course of my meal, I learned three things about eating Eritrean. One, it’s fantastic; two, it’s filling; and three, you eat it with your fingers.
Only a few blocks north but a continent away from our usual stomping grounds, my wife and I stepped a little nervously into an extremely well-heated space of serene green. Our eyes were irresistibly drawn to the African artwork that decked the walls. My wife was so distracted, she didn’t even notice the most important thing: tabletop arcade games! (Tetris and Arkanoid, I will return to challenge you.) We sat, and I was still admiring the beautiful Tigrinya script translations on the menu, similar to Arabic letters but more upright, when our hostess arrived to take our orders.
Deep into unknown waters, we asked for her recommendation. She took in our pink complexions and asked uncertainly, “How spicy do you like things?” My wife assured her that “medium” would be great. Aware that an Eritrean “medium” might be different than Save-On salsa’s, I suggested the milder side of medium. My bride made a face at me as the hostess bent over our menu. The chicken would be a little spicy, we were informed, but both the Mixed Vegetables ($8.50) and the Mebrat Café Special ($9) could be adjusted to taste.
Good enough for us—we requested a couple of lattes ($1.75 each) and relaxed in the welcoming atmosphere, no longer as self-conscious about being the palest patrons present. Even our nine-month-old daughter seemed to chill out, staring at the jukebox filled with Tigrinya-inscribed CDs in the corner. The coffees arrived quickly and delivered warm, silky smooth heat beneath generous piles of foam. The extra sidecar of espresso was a nice touch.
We were still sampling our piping hot lattes when our daughter started squawking her own hunger. Gone are the days when my wife’s discreetly lifted shirt could deliver an entire dinner, so I scattered a handful of Cheerios on Maeryn’s tray as our server ushered our entrées to the table. The Special was an earth-tone stew of tender beef, onions, green peppers and tomatoes sautéed in awaze, a spiced cayenne pepper sauce; the aroma was divine. My wife’s vegetarian dish boasted neat piles of warmer colours: the cabbage, carrots and potato skins of the mixed vegetable plate were accented by garlic and ginger, made succulently unrecognizable through dicing and spicing. What truly captured our imaginations, though, was the injera.
A flatbread made of teff grain and yeast that tasted like a slightly sour pancake, the injera was simultaneously our plate, napkin and utensil. Both dishes were served on injera to sop up juices, plus we had a few to share. I would tear off some injera, pinch up some stew and drop it into my mouth to savour the combination. It felt primal, intimate and liberating. My dish was delicious and the “mildly medium” spiciness built up gradually into a delightful burn. Hers was more curried than hot, and the fresh, finely nuanced tastes of her meal were outstanding. We were too stuffed to even consider dessert afterwards, although I couldn’t help but wonder what shape it would have taken.
It was amazing: this staggering dinner and novel experience cost us less than $30, even with a generous tip. The messiness quotient was high—I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for a first date—but I did appreciate the fact that we weren’t automatically handed utensils. Far from the violence of its troubled Eritrean homeland, Mebrat Café is an oasis of peace which offers savoury cuisine. And if you have a quarter, I’ll kick your ass at head-to-head Tetris. V
111, 10603-107 Ave • 424-9929