Ethiopian restaurants have been a fixture on Edmonton’s dining-out scene for so long now that it seems unnecessary to rehash descriptions of its distinctive style to what one must assume is a savvy, urbane readership that browses the occasional free weekly newspaper in search of things to do with their disposable income.
And yet, one mustn’t assume too much. Thus, an Ethiopian meal usually comprises a colourful variety of vividly spiced stewed vegetables, meats and pulses served on a big platter lined with a slightly sour, spongy, fermented flatbread called injera (normally made from an iron-rich grain called teff), with more injera presented on the side for scooping up the food. As such, Ethiopian feasts work well as group meals which you can conclude by eating the tray-liner, which has absorbed the flavours of the meal. The complexity of these spices mirror Indian seasonings but are, you know, different. And like Indian food, Ethiopian cuisine can sometimes be intensely spicy.
If you aren’t hip to Ethiopian food, it will help to know these things before entering the unfussy premises of relative newcomer Walia, the menu of which is, it’s fair to say, not exactly self-explanatory. In fact, Walia sets itself apart from some of 124th Street’s destination restaurants for its cheerful lack of polish. The interior is tidy and pleasant, with many of its low tables arranged under a faux veranda, its freshly painted walls decorated with African art and dominated by one big TV showing sports, with remnants of a birthday celebration festooning one end of the room.
The bill of fare, as stated, is an agglomeration of malapropisms and typos that makes it tricky to discern the difference between some dishes, or even what some of the dishes might contain. A chat with the friendly server about which were most exemplary of the kitchens abilities was likewise inconclusive. She did endorse the shiro, for instance, but then was forced to admit they were all out of it.
Luckily, there’s a certain amount of consistency between most Ethiopian menus, so I knew that a vegetarian combo ($15) would provide a good assortment and that special tibs ($15) usually means seasoned beef strips stir-fried with onions and peppers. I also knew from eating at Zembaba that dullet is not considered an entry-level Ethiopian dish as it’s fashioned from organ meats, a definite no-no for the meat-reluctant co-diner in my party of four. A conversation with the server about our need for another dish to round out the meal led to not really knowing what to expect for a third item.
The food took long enough that my co-diners and I visited and took in the faintly chaotic atmosphere with the proprietors’ adorable young children prowling the premises and woozy music blasting at various volumes through a big PA system until diners at another table asked that it be turned down a bit.
The food arrived not a moment too soon in a colourful basket called a mesob, the lid of which was removed to reveal a mouth-watering array of colours and textures in discrete mounds—turmeric-tinted cabbage and carrots, deeply green spinach cooked with melty wedges of potato, pulpy piles of lentil stew in shades of yellow and red, simmered beets and a row of purple cabbage, and an order of special tibs divided in two for easy access from either end of the table, all arranged around a simple salad of lettuce and tomato wedges. A separate pot of beef on the bone in a rich, dark red gravy that bespoke the meal’s fiercest spice level also arrived, and a different server ladled it onto the platter’s cardinal points. We each grabbed a roll of injera and went to work.
No two ways about it, every bit of the meal was delicious from the simple, sweet simmered beets to the spinach redolent of ginger and cardamom to the spicy stew of lentils dosed with paprika. The meat-reluctant co-diner even complimented the special tibs, the chewiness of which contrasted with the stewed softness of the other dishes. The beef on the bone was a bit messy to reckon with, particularly given the lack of side plates and the low table which forced us to eat between our knees, but this was a quibble. The small cloud of fruit flies that attended the meal was more of a problem, but we soldiered on undaunted through two sides of injera before eating the sodden flatbread that lined the platter.
With four adult beverages for stanching the burn, the meal came to $76, before tip. If you’re looking for a new Ethiopian place to sample, I’d say Walia is as good as any you’ll find in town. And if you’re tired of the assured customer service chops and studied niceties of Edmonton’s vaunted destination restaurants, Walia will definitely provide you a change of pace.