Back in December 2015, I flew out to DC to search for apartments in advance of the big move from Minneapolis. I still distinctly remember having a really nice conversation with my Uber driver from the airport, whose name was G.G. He talked about how he had moved to DC from Ethiopia and that there was a pretty solid Ethiopian contingent in the city. I asked him if he thought the Ethiopian restaurants in the city were legit and he emphatically said yes. Very authentic, great food. Having been in DC for a while now, I’ve tried a lot of the different spots and they’ve all been delicious. All the restaurants feel very homey; I will never forget being scolded by my server at Ghion for not eating enough food (even though I was stuffed). She really wanted me to eat all the beets, as she boasted they were the best in the city (and they were quite good). She and my Polish grandmother, the ultimate food pusher, would have gotten along swimmingly. All of that is to say that while certain restaurants might have better injera or tibs or beets, they all have a similar feel to them. That is, until you try Etete.
Becky, Nico, Jane, and I decided to try Etete for its Restaurant Week special. Walking in, you immediately sense the difference from the other surrounding Ethiopian restaurants in the Shaw/U Street area. Most jarring of all: no Ethiopians. None in the front of house. None serving. None in the kitchen. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this (‘Etete’ is actually the nickname for one of the two head chefs, who is Ethiopian), but you definitely don’t get the same “welcome to my home!” vibe that many other Ethiopian restaurants offer. In fact, Becky noticed there was something oddly familiar about Etete’s decor, and later realized it was because one of Etete’s owners also owns a high-end sushi restaurant in town with almost identical decor. In short, while Etete has a very clean and modern look and feel, you definitely feel like you’re out on the town. One of Etete’s stated goals is to create an elevated Ethiopian experience, so to be fair they were going for something a lil different.
And I have to say, all my reservations melted away when the first dish, the injera tacos, arrived. Our server smartly recommended that we get two orders of the tacos so each of us could have a whole taco. The flavors were overwhelming. Each bite was like getting to try all the flavors in the classic Ethiopian sampler platter all at once. They were truly delicious, and had a solid kick to them from the pickled peppers. Just a really fun dish to eat.
The lentil egg rolls were another clever twist on classic Ethiopian cuisine, and props to our server for upgrading the usual order of 3 to 4 so we’d each get our own. The spicy balsamic dipping sauce was great, and we definitely kept that around for other dishes.
We also ended up ordering Etete’s version of the classic veggie sampler platter, which was certainly comparable to the more traditional counterparts in the neighborhood. I usually like my lentils with a little more heat to them, but still really tasty. Becky was also pumped to get to dip the extra injera we got into the dregs of every other dish we ate. All that available delicious bread also made it so I ate just a few too many bites of food, but what else is new?
The alligator pepper crusted short rib was both delicious and confusing. Delicious, because it was extremely tender and juicy. It is apparently cooked for 24 hours, and that was time well spent. Confusing, because it needed some punctuation so that we knew what animal we’d ultimately end up with. Etete has since changed the menu to say ‘alligator pepper’ crusted short rib, so you know you’re not getting gator. I don’t know why I expected alligator from an Ethiopian restaurant. Probably because I like eating every animal. Or because ever since watching Tiffany Haddish recall taking Will and Jada on a swamp boat tour, I want every story to be about gators.
There were a few other thing we ordered that were pretty solid, but not super memorable (mainly because I took terrible notes and took forever to write this). The beef tibs were a lil overly crispy, but the flavor was great. The codfish fritter was fried were and had a tasty dipping sauce. The black-eyed pea fritter looked real similar to the cod fritter, just with a slightly worse sauce. The beets were…fine. Definitely not best in the city like the other place I went to.
Then there the misses, both which were ordered as entrees. The first was the chicken and spinach tamale. I was really looking forward to this one. With garlic, caramelized onion, and poblanos, how could you go wrong? I am still asking myself that question today. I just got bored eating it. So little flavor. It made me sad. The other miss was the tumeric chicken. None of us could figure this one out. The sauce was really sweet, but with a combination of flavors that truly unique. But not unique in a Morgan Freeman’s voice kind of way. More in a Gilbert Gottfried’s voice kind of way. It took all of us quite a few bites to ultimately determine we weren’t really very big fans.
Dessert was a pistachio napoleon and a few bowls of ice cream. The napoleon had really nice flavor and was really well balanced, though a little dry. I could not tell you if my life depended on it what type of ice cream we got, but it was ice cream and therefore most likely good.
Ultimately, elevating traditional Ethiopian food was a fun experiment, though obviously not a complete success (improve that tamale or burn that recipe, Etete!). When Becky emailed me the photos from the evening, her summary review put it best: “Yum, looking at these photos makes me want to go back. …but not pay for it 😬”. Despite it being restaurant week, not a great deal; in fact I think they may have actually charged more depending on what combination of food items you picked out. In other words, when asking myself “Is it worth it? Let me work it…” the answer was perhaps “no” for the thriftier diner, especially when surrounded by more affordable Ethiopian fare. Also Becky someone got a mosquito bite while we were eating, so sorry, Etete, gotta dock a few points for that. Overall, the few great bites of food (I will return, injera tacos) and excellent service earns Etete a solid 3 out of 4 om noms.