House of Lalibela (Minneapolis, MN)

We’ve been pining for a good Ethiopian restaurant since Odaa disappeared from the West Bank. The food there was consistently interesting and tasty, and we haven’t found another east African restaurant we like as well.

When we read about House of Lalibela, our hopes began to rise. We visited just days after opening. The staff was still training and the temporary menus had only a few choices.

Since then, the staff has become more experienced and the menu has grown. We’ve got a new favorite east African restaurant.

The location isn’t an asset. East Lake Street hasn’t been glamorous since they tore down the roller coaster around 1910. And the building doesn’t look like much: a free-standing one-story structure rising out of the concrete with a large parking lot around it. It looks more like an Embers than anything else. Which, as a matter of fact, it once was. Karen worked at that Embers back in the mid ’80s, as the bar-rush waitress. She knows more about that building than she cares to remember. And she was utterly stunned by the improvements inside.

What was once a grubby and dilapidated restaurant is now all primped for company. The walls are freshly painted with warm earth tones. The counter where people ate their 2:00 a.m. eggs is now an inviting bar. The new windows are larger, and coated to soften the sun’s glare. The dining room, once the stomping ground of barflies and cab drivers, is now simple and sophisticated. Ethiopian art covers the walls. All the tables now have linens and fresh flowers, and charmingly weird fixtures hang from the ceiling.

Presumably they completely revamped the kitchen, too, because Embers never cooked food like this.

Ethiopian cuisine can be a novel experience for newcomers, so a short primer is in order. Basically, you’re served puddles of heavily spiced food on a large platter, meant for your whole table. You don’t use a fork, but instead eat using the fermented wheat flat bread—called injera—provided with your food. Tear off a piece of bread, use the bread to pick up some food and eat it all together. Injera also lines the platter and soaks up the sauces, and you’re welcome to eat that as well. A common spice is berbere sauce, a spice blend of garlic, red pepper, cardamom, coriander, fenugreek and other spices. It’s red, and it’s hot, like a hot, red citrusy curry powder.

Wats are stews of heavily spiced red pepper and berbere sauce; you can order chicken and egg, beef, shrimp or vegetables. An alecha is a milder version of the wat. A tibs is even milder: onions, garlic and butter, practically French. All three are Ethiopian standards, and delicious. Even more interesting is the minchetabesh, finely chopped beef fried with ginger, onion, cardamom, and white pepper and then sautéed in berbere sauce. And equally good is the gomen be sega: beef sautéed with collard greens, onions, peppers, peppercorns, and cardamom. If you’re adventurous, try the spiced beef tartare: kitfo.

Most of the vegetarian dishes are lentil-based. Miser wat is a red lentil wat. Yatakilt wat is a mixture of green beans, carrots, and potatoes—one of our favorites. Kik alecha is made with yellow split peas, and is delicious. We also like the yemiser azifa, a salad of cold lentils, chopped onions, and jalapeños, and seasoned with garlic, ginger, white pepper, lemon, and mustard seeds. And we’re simply nuts about the collard-green gomen.

For those who want to try everything, the best deals are the combination platters. Lalibela has four: two meat and two vegetarian, large or small. Order at least one meat and one vegetarian, and let them bring it all together.

You don’t need to order appetizers, but the Ethiopian salad—a simple lettuce, onion, tomato and jalapeno salad, with a special Lalibla dressing that’s fantastic—is a nice starter. The vinaigrette is heavily spiced, and a great overture for the meal. Also good are the sambussas, small pastries filled with either meat or a spiced lentil mixture. The cilantro tomato dip makes it even better. More adventurous is the ayiab begomen: finely chopped collard greens mixed with spiced cottage cheese and served cold. We liked it, but it’s not for everyone.

The restaurant has a small wine list, but nothing Western really fits the cuisine. More traditional is Ethiopian honey wine, and beer also works well. Or simply order a glass of thick, sweet mango juice.

The service is friendly and efficient. The waitresses are happy to chat about the food, the restaurant, how long they’ve been in the United States, and everything else. Language was sometimes a problem, as when we asked for some details about the cuisine, but we found ways to communicate and everybody smiled all the way through. Food comes quickly, and the portions are generous; we’ve gone for lunch and then skipped dinner. We wish the food came out of the kitchen a bit hotter, but that’s a minor quibble.

Spread the news. There’s a clean, bright, well-designed new restaurant serving utterly delicious Ethiopian food. International revolution happened in other Minneapolis neighborhoods, but seemed to have passed this stretch of East Lake by… until now.

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.