Hail Queen Makeda - Resurrected in DC
Eating at the newly reopened Queen Makeda is what Chowhounding is all about. Here is a place that started out as a complete hole-in-the-wall that many folks would not dare venture into, serving home cooking from the mother in the family that does it for pure love. After being closed for at least a year now, it has been transformed into this beautiful butterfly which, in its own way, is more breathtaking than what a restarunat designer and a ton of cash could produce. If any on you saw it before, you will not believe your eyes.
And I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw the same woman in the kitchen, the same family, as the old place.
The food used to be delicious, and is almost certainly better now. Unlike before when you could not count on what she had in the kitchen, and you could not even see what you were eating, the food here is both gorgoeus and amazing. I've eaten here twice the past week, and everything is far beyond what you can get at any other Ethiopian restaurant in the city, except for Etete.
Tibs Wat, Gored-Gored, Yebeg Alicha, Shiro are all items to look out for. Service can be like at other Ethiopian restaurants, on a platter, but the default here is giving each person their own mini-platter and they bring out the bowls of food for you to apportion.
My first visit to Queen Makeda:
1917 9th St NW, Washington, DC 20001
I just got back from the recently reopened Queen Makeda on 9th St and U just across the street from Etete and in the thick of the 9th street Ethiopian row. The exterior is painted a new green but it still shows the signs of a long legacy; one needs to use quite a bit of force to open the front door. Once inside however the space is warm and inviting, with two bars split across two floors looking out on 9th street. Scenes from Ethiopian daily life and culture line the walls and the seating arrangements range from the traditional stools around a messob to regular tables and open back chairs.
When I walked in the staff and owner were chatting happily and offered me any seat in the house. Sitting upstairs I perused the menu while the waitress fetched some water. The menu is split between appetizers and salads on the first page with lunch and dinner entrees on the next two. As far as I could see the lunch and dinner prices were the same (at least for the vegetable plate) and quite cheap (vegetable plate was 7.95; highest priced item was 13.95). The vegetable plate comes with a selection of misir (red lentils with berbere) or shiro (ground chick peas) and two of three vegetable offerings (string beans and carrots, collard greens with garlic, and cabbage and potatoes). I went with the misir wat, string beans, and collards and sat back to admire the surroundings while I waited. About 15 minutes later, the waitress returned with a tray of five bowls, a platter of injera, and a plate to assemble my meal on. Spreading out the injera, she took portions of all five and spread it around the injera. In addition to the misir wat, string beans, and collard greens, I also received yellow split peas and the house salad.
The first thing I always try on an Ethiopian platter is the gomen, the collard greens. These were competently made, not heavy with oil and not over done to the point that they had lost their characteristic bitterness. However, I couldn't detect any garlic, ginger, or heat that accompanies the best examples of this dish. The house salad came next. It was your standard iceberg lettuce, onion and tomato combination drenched in a tangy vinaigrette. Nothing special but palatable. The string bean and carrots ended up being cabbage and carrots, a change I did not note until later. They were decent with a slight ginger note but somewhat inconsistent chopping made for varying degrees of tenderness; larger chunks of carrot hadn't cooked all the way through while smaller pieces were meltingly tender and delicious. The cabbage component wasn't as good as I've had in similar preparations elsewhere. The misir wat was again decent but suffered from both a lack of heat and an overemphasis of cloves/nutmeg in the berbere spice. The standout was the yellow split peas, cooked to perfect tenderness, the individual kernels just putting up the slightest protest in the mouth with a subtle, savory ginger infused flavor. The last but perhaps most important component of the meal was the injera itself. It was cooked well with a great sour tang revealing that the kitchen is using a traditional Teff based preparation (or at the very least letting it ferment properly).
Service throughout was above average for Ethiopian restaurant standards although for most of the meal I was the lone patron. I had to ask for water refills initially but the waitress was pleasant enough and unlike other Ethiopian restaurants I've been, did not disappear for extended lengths of time. Overall the quantity and quality of the food was a good value for the money but the quality lagged behind that of Etete or Dukem. I'll be going back at least once in the next week and I'll see if I can't encourage the kitchen to be more liberal with the spice and aromatics; perhaps they were afraid to upset the palate of a young American diner and deliberately held back. I also appreciate as a vegan, that they were upfront about what dishes they use butter in and they are clearly labeled on the menu; the vegetable plate is entirely vegan.
If you go back, by all means talk to them about the level of spicing. The 'mama' of the family continues catering in the Ethiopian community. Engage them in conversation (especially if you're the only one!), and find out if they change anything from serving at a wedding to serving you. I'd be interested to know the answer.
I've always felt at Queen Makeda the very strong connection between Ethiopian cooking and American Soul Food.
We finally made it here for dinner tonight, and now I realize it should have been first on my list. Then again, if we'd tried it first I'm not sure we would have made it anywhere else.
This is by far the best Ethiopian I've had in D.C., and possibly anywhere. I ate Ethiopian for years in Atlanta, which has quite a good offering itself, and here we've tried Etete, Dukem, what used to be Roha, Lalibela, and one other place I can't remember.
We ordered the veg. combination and the meat combination, which came to about 9 dishes, and everything was stellar. Such marvelous, varied spicing! There was not a dish on our platter that didn't taste doted upon. I was incredibly impressed with the food, and our server could not have been sweeter. I think my search is over, at least for the meantime, for an Ethiopian standby.