Merhaba's Downhill Slide
(Originally posted at http://mangelorange.wordpress.com/201...)
I’d been to Merhaba before, back when I first moved to Orange County. I’d taken coworkers and we were thoroughly underwhelmed by the neighbourhood, by the decor and the service. The food was not bad but certainly nothing special. I’d had no interest in returning, since Tana is very good, but degustateur raved about it so I thought it might be time for a return visit.
In the intervening three years, they have spruced up the plaza considerably; previously it was hard to tell what was in there. A lick of paint and some improved signage, though oddly Merhaba has no mention on the plaza’s tall list of merchants.
They’ve also cleaned up the inside a lot, which does help with the first impression. What does not help, though, is the TV on absolutely full-blast. A table of men were watching it and kept turning the volume up and up and up. We nearly left just because of that. Toward the end of the meal, they started cleaning the kitchen and an eye-watering smell of cleaning solvent wafted out into the restaurant, so bad that one of the men called out something and apparently asked her to stop cleaning so they (and we) could eat.
The service was exactly how I remember it: you have to call out or ring the bell for service. While I don’t necessarily mind doing it, it’d be nice at least to be greeted by someone other than other customers (who were, it must be said, very friendly).
The food, which was perfectly serviceable in 2007, leaves a lot to be desired. We ordered beef wat (which has a Tigrinya name here, since Merhaba is an Eritrean, not Ethiopian, restaurant) and a vegetarian sampler. I’m not sure if we were treated differently because we’re not African or if the food is normally this way, but apart from the beef there was absolutely no flavour—NO flavour whatsoever—to the food.
I liked their injera, thicker than Tana’s and therefore spongier, but I found it ironic, given degustateur’s comment about the injera at Tana, that it was served slightly cold (definitely not room temperature, especially since it’s 70 degrees out today).
The beef was actually very good; quite tender. I would have preferred a bigger kick of spice (it was a little closer to alecha than wat) but the fact remains that it was smoky and rich without being oily. The portion was very large for $11.00; good value.
The yellow lentils, however, were execrable. They had clearly been cooked in a little butter or oil and a lot of tomato sauce, cooked until they were soft. No discernible spice notes, no texture, no nothing but lentils in tomato sauce. A huge portion—portion sizes are much larger here than at Tana—but not good at all.
Salad was fine; iceberg lettuce and decent tomatoes tossed in bottled Italian dressing, but nobody goes to an East African restaurant for the green salad.
The mixed vegetables were absolutely atrocious and frankly they should have left a big empty space on the injera rather than serve them. They were obviously cooked from frozen (with a stalk of celery thrown in to fool us): water-logged, bland, overcooked and flavourless crinkle-cut carrots, broccoli, green beans and green and red bell peppers. They had been cooked (or frozen) so long that the broccoli was grey.
Spinach was also clearly from frozen, which I could understand if they had only done something—anything—with it. It was completely unseasoned, not even salted. When I sprinkled salt and pepper on it, it tasted exactly like boiled spinach from the packet in the freezer aisle. No hit of spice, no ginger-kissed niter kebbeh, no anything but spinach and water. Certainly no homemade cheese as the menu suggested.
The last dish was stewed cabbage. There was one carrot in a very large portion of cabbage; this at least had some niter kebbeh taste in it, but the cabbage was cooked absolutely to death. It, too, needed salt. Cabbage is never going to be an interesting dish, but good grief, it was slimy.
I went in wanting to order kitfo, but frankly after this we just wanted to leave.
I’m going to assume that degustateur has a vastly different experience as a regular than I had, but it’s very, very unlikely that I would bother returning. Truth be told, if Tana didn’t exist in Anaheim, I’d save my Ethiopian cravings for trips to Fairfax Avenue rather than go to Merhaba. While I’ll concede that the meat was masterfully done, I don’t have much use for an East African restaurant that can’t cook the vegetables so central to the cuisine.
Merhaba East African Restaurant
2801 W. Ball Rd. #5
Anaheim, CA 92804
E A Merhaba Shop & Coffee
2801 W Ball Rd # 5, Anaheim, CA
Yo, Das …
Your review of Merhaba may be overly harsh and potentially damaging to its livelihood (“Downhill”, “NO flavour whatsoever”, “execrable”, “atrocious”, “slimy”). I trust that this was not your intent.
Small, family-owned, ethnic establishments such as Merhaba and Tana should be encouraged whenever possible, particularly in Orange County. Brazen put-downs on multiple web sources from someone with your level of awareness and credibility, Das, should be reserved for occasions when gross, repeated malfeasances have occurred. I seriously doubt that has been the case with Merhaba given your only two visits in three years, the first of which was “perfectly serviceable”.
In reading your review and reflecting upon my experiences at not only Tana and Merhaba, but at all of the Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurants I’ve eaten at I feel that, most likely, we seek the same. That is, the best of both worlds in balance. It may be a foregone conclusion that, when seeking the better East African meat or fish preparations, go for Eritrean (Merhaba). When seeking the better vegetarian options, go for Ethiopian (Tana). Not really practical in SoCal since most said restaurants bill themselves as both. Distinctions are commonly noted in San Francisco and on the East Coast. Where we may differ, Das, is in our respective points of equilibrium with respects to meats/veggies, subtle/bold, bland/spicy, mild/hot, etc.
Prior to Tana’s arrival, Merhaba billed itself as an Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurant. Since the advent of Tana, Merhaba has distinguished itself as Eritrean whereas Tana touts its cuisine as Ethiopian. Notably, Merhaba’s menu did not change in the transition. A bit of cooperative economics via market segmentation and differentiation, perhaps?
Eritrean cuisine is marked by greater restraint in the use of oils and niter kibbeh than its Ethiopian counterpart. At the same time, its usage of spices is generally a bit more complex resulting in subtleties that may be perceived as bland. Meat, though scarce in Country, is more prevalent along with stews (tsebhies) in the Eritrean culinary regimen whereas vegetables and pulses are more integral to the Ethiopian diet. Our commentaries both seem to reflect this. With Eritrea being a coastal country, fish is more commonplace in traditional Eritrean cuisine. Merhaba’s Tsebhie Asa Kiyeh, a fiery rockfish stew, is a fabulous example. Not surprisingly, Tana offers no fish preparations.
At Merhaba, btw, the dry curd, homemade cottage cheese (lab) accompanies the Kitfo (which you did not order), not the greens (spinach). Funny, your comment reminded me of the delicious cheese cubes found in Palak Paneer, an Indian dish. Love that stuff! The Hamli that I’ve had at Merhaba has always been collard greens, somewhat reminiscent of Southern soul food preparations. Love them too!
I should mention that I recognize the “table of men” watching TV at Merhaba as local Ethiopian/Eritrean emigrants. They are there virtually every time I visit. And no, the faces are not always the same. Often, the group includes women, children and sometimes babies as well. I openly welcome the presence of a strong local contingent as it always bolsters my confidence in the authenticity and quality of any ethnic food venue. I have never seen such a contingent at Tana. Perhaps, just timing.
Das, I sincerely believe that Tana and Merhaba are both doing excellent jobs at what they each do best. I must say that, if I were really into veggies, I would no doubt have to commit to Rahel Ethiopian in LA. However, the omnipotent carnivore in me prefers Merhaba. Also, I detect absolutely no degradation whatsoever in either food or service (save for during Hanna’s three month absence last year) in nearly eight years of consistent patronage. Like I said before, for me, Merhaba feels like home and Hanna is like Mom.
… now, if I could just convince “Mom” to add goat and Dulet to her menu …
I understand that online reviews can be damaging to reputations, but I also am not untutored in the ways of Horn of Africa cuisine. I know what it's supposed to taste like, and even allowing for differences in cooking styles, this didn't cut the niter kebbeh (please pardon the expression). I have been there more than twice (and you are right that the food was serviceable the last time), but this time was simply awful.
There's no excuse whatsoever—"they won't like the flavouring", "I don't have it prepared", "I don't want to scare them off"—for frozen vegetables boiled and put on a plate. There was not a chance in Hades that the chopped green vegetables on the injera were collard greens; I eat collards at least twice a month and I know what they are; this was spinach.
I've talked to other OC foodies about this and the reaction to Merhaba has been lukewarm at best. I would love to know how you've got great food out of her, because clearly she caters enough to the local East African community to have their loyalty and patronage, and you don't do that serving the sort of food we had last Friday.
"Eritrean cuisine is marked by greater restraint in the use of oils and niter kibbeh than its Ethiopian counterpart. At the same time, its usage of spices is generally a bit more complex resulting in subtleties that may be perceived as bland."
Really? I've had Eritrean food in Oakland, in Washington D.C. and in New York and I have never had "bland" Eritrean food. I certainly have plenty of practice distinguishing subtleties in food that does not knock my socks off with flavour, given that I spent the first decade of my life eating Scandinavian food.
Also, Tana used to offer fish; my understanding is that there was little call for it and it disappeared off the menu.
Can you describe Hanna? The only thing I can think of at this point is that she was out for the day and someone had taken over for her, someone with no gift for flavouring.
We had a late lunch there last week...our group of four were the only customers in the place...the service was fine...one person, the owner did everything except cook. The Kitfo (leb leb) was quite good as was the Kelwa Bighe Awaze...so spicy...the Zel Zel Tibsy was a little chewy but very tasty. The veg combination was very good...we actually ordered more Shiro and Hamli. As mentioned, the injera here is probably the best in SoCal...we saw a number of customers pick up orders to take away. All in all, the meal we had was as good as in the past...and we dine here at least once a month...more than we do at the restaurants on Fairfax (which is close to home!) Perhaps Das Ubergeek, you hit them on an off day...I hope so since the OC needs "real" places like this to survive!!
There were two people working in the restaurant.
Perhaps they serve other things for lunch and had to go to the freezer for leftover "dinner" food?
I'm not trying to have a down on this place; I went in in true hope of finding that the food was excellent and that I'd have to make a hard choice between OC's two East African places. As it is, I'm going to have to be convinced to go again, and I'm going to have to go with someone who has had a positive experience.
OC (we don't use the "the", thanks) has plenty of real places, but I agree with you that the more the merrier.
re: Das Ubergeek
As a native of Los Angeles (I have lived here for over 50yrs) we never called it OC or "the" OC....just the city name...or as my OC living family calls it...the "Boonies"... ;-)...but then, any region that has a baseball team called the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim...well ;-) !
I was introduced to Merhaba by an Ethiopian colleague of mine from San Diego who said it was the best he could find south of Fairfax or his mother's house in the "Valley"...and it is inexpensive enough to give another chance IMHO!
...and there are never enough "real" places!!