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Best Ethiopian in Bay Area?

We have some friends we dine with often, and their daughter is studying Ethiopia in school and is fascinated by it. it occurred to us she might like to try Ethiopian food.
What's the best? and it has to be appropriate for a four-year old.

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  1. in which part of the Bay Area do you dine ? many of the places in the east bay are small, informal, and neighborhood cafe in character. has the four year old been introduced to any spicy foods (Indian babies get chili in their baby food, so they say) ? some Ethiopian/Eritrean places also use a liberal amount of ghee in cooking, which could be too rich for someone not accustomed to it (not as rich as the heavily buttered popcorn in movie houses, but in combination with the tumeric and spice mixes it can be heavy for an uninitiated palate).

    the staple, injera, is like a plain, sourdough pancake and not spicy or rich at all. the vegetable dishes are generally milder than those with meat, chicken, lentils, or split peas, so a vegetable based course with the injera would be a representative, but not overwhelming, introduction to the food. most versions of the vegetable and legume dishes in my experience in a range of eating places (oaktown and berserkley) are pretty similar. nearly every place has a vegetarian sampler suited to sharing, so the legume dishes would be an option to try along with the ones based on greens (often collard), carrots, and potato. if the child is sensitive to garlic, usually it's the collard greens that get a healthy dose, the carrot/cabbage/potato combination is very mild.

    1. Most food is cooked to order and I'm sure you can easily get help from the waitperson about any food that would be suitable for a 4 yo (some of whom have pretty sophisticated palates :) )
      It really depends where you will be eating - San Jose and East Bay have a lot of choices, the city not so much.
      The really fun part is - Ethiopian food is eaten with your hands, it's served on a big platter with injera on the bottom and the "goodies" on top - can't imagine that a four yo wouldn't love that.

      1 Reply
      1. re: estnet

        if the four year old has already relished Indian or Szechuan food or complex mesoamerican moles, almost anything from the Ethiopian/Eritrean kitchen will be child's play. even then, however, some parents would not want the immature immune system exposed to the dish based on raw, seasoned, red meat (similar to tartare/carpaccio), sometimes lightly seared.

      2. To answer the primary question: We love Zeni. After some experimenting, we now always get the same thing: Miser Wot, Dulet and Kitfo (the last two served raw). Yes we get weirdest things on the menu... and they are all spicy (well the Kifto is not spicy until I douse it with enough chili pepper to impress the owner with my spice tolerance).
        However, they do have a lot of not so weird things. All their vegetable dishes are all delicious and not so strange, and there are some meat dishes that are even fairly bland (like the Gomen Besiga). So I think you could definitely find some foods for the 4 year old. My biggest concern would be if she is well mannered enough to wash her hands and share a big communal plate (some 4 year olds are prim and proper and some are terrors)... It also may be hard for her to reach the communal plate; maybe they do something special for kids (I have seen kids there before but wasn't looking closely).
        A lot of the clientele at Zeni is Ethiopian, and they have the traditional tables and will even do a special coffee ceremony if you order it (I haven't tried this yet), so it would be a cool place to visit for anyone studying Ethiopia.

        One more important thing: anyone who doesn't like sourdough should avoid Ethiopian food... learned this the hard way with my sister. She didn't like the bread, so that meant she didn't like anything.

        1. In SF, I love MOYA. The flavors in the dishes are bright and "clean," not homogeneous like the muddled piles of mush some Ethiopian places serve.

          The restaurant is also more appropriate for a 4 year old than a lot of the super crowded places on Haight. It's clean, quiet, and although not in the best part of town it is fine by day. ymmv

          4 Replies
          1. re: Pei

            I really like MOYA too, but haven't heard of any news of their re-opening since the fire.
            Have you?

            1. re: Kristine

              I emailed MOYA last night and got a reply today:
              they said:

              We're still closed, and we don't expect to re-open for a couple more months.

              So they DO plan to re-open, but not yet.

              1. re: Kim Cooper

                Now reopened according to SFoodie/Eater. New location is at 9th and Mission. A nice surprise.

                1. re: bigwheel042

                  Went there last night. The new location is "brighter" inside than the old one which makes sense since it's a coffee shop by day.
                  Food, even though they are currently only serving a limited menu, is still excellent. It's great to have them back.

          2. I like Cafe Colucci. They make their injera with teff, some places substitute wheat.

            Cafe Colucci
            6427 Telegraph Ave, Oakland, CA 94609

            1. Thank you all for your thoughtful replies.
              I believe the child is not tolerant of spicy things, and one of her mothers is a vegetarian.
              We live in San Mateo and they are in SF (Potrero District), so it would be out of the way to go to the East Bay, but not impossible.
              thanks again,

              13 Replies
              1. re: Kim Cooper

                Ethiopian does vegetarian REALLY well. I'm not as familiar with the places in the city (but you've got good suggestions from others). Again - I would highly suggest you talk to the waiter about the child's tastes - many of the dishes are not spicy at all. As for eating off a communal plate - each person usually has their own small plate and I'm sure a parent could easily give the child her own serving(s) as appropriate.

                I live In SM too - and often get a craving for Ethiopian but it's the one thing I can't get without a lot of driving :(

                1. re: Kim Cooper

                  Ethiopian is great for vegetarian and not everything is spicy.
                  Zeni was featured on check please, so if you want some visuals about Ethiopian food(or you can just have the child watch the video to learn about the food):

                  Zeni would probably be to far for your friends in Portero unfortunately. We make the drive from RWC a few times a year, but it is not close... and we always go as early as possible since the wait can be long.

                    1. re: Kim Cooper

                      Zeni's in San Jose.

                      Zeni Ethiopian Restaurant
                      1320 Saratoga Ave, San Jose, CA 95129

                  1. re: Kim Cooper

                    Assab might be the most convenient. Parking's easier in that neighborhood than near some of the other Ethiopian places in SF. Some positive reports in the archive.

                    2845 Geary Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94118

                    1. re: Kim Cooper

                      "I believe the child is not tolerant of spicy things, and one of her mothers is a vegetarian"

                      then as much as I love kitfo (the spicy raw beef mentioned upstream) it would probably not be a good choice. even if one eats meat, the hot peppers work sort of like lime juice in a ceviche. it would be nothing without them. one thing I've found in these places is to call ahead, if the owners are strict Coptic Christian there are a lot of meatless fast days on the calendar. most don't adhere, but a few places do.

                      1. re: hill food

                        There are Ethiopian restaurants in the Bay Area that serve no meat on fast days? Seriously?

                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                          the old Axum on Haight didn't use to (haven't lived in that neighborhood for quite some time) so maybe that's changed, but it seemed like everytime I was in there half the menu wasn't being served and at first I thought it was kitchen hitches, but a friend from the GTU explained what was up. it's usually just the mom'n'poppy type places. in DC I would see it happen way out in the burbs.

                          1. re: hill food

                            I go to Axum when I'm in the area and they're open, and like their vegetarian platter. It is generally less spicy and the injera is white rather than reddish.

                            Haven't been to Zeni, and Axum isn't as good as the Oakland options, but it is closer.

                            1. re: Windy

                              If it's white it ain't teff. BTW BBW had teff injera 24oz for $4.79. Looked like 5 or 6 pancakes per bag.

                              1. re: wolfe

                                Yup, that's why I mentioned it. But it's in the city, not closed by fire, and a veggie combo there is a screaming deal.

                                1. re: wolfe

                                  This is not necessarily true -- there are two varieties of teff, ivory and brown, so the bread can vary greatly in color and still be 100% teff. Just a heads up!

                                  1. re: operagirl

                                    Thanks, belatedly. Maybe I try to make ivory teff injera with my Eritrean cooking instructor.

                      2. The Best Ethiopian Restaurants are in East Bay.
                        My favorite is Addis http://www.addisethiopian.com/ Friendly folks lots of veg choices and mild dishes.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: chefj

                          Chefj, how does Addis compare to Zeni or Rehoboth, two of San Jose's more acclaimed Ethiopian restaurants? What do you think makes Addis better?

                          I can vouch for Zeni as being delicious - haven't yet been to Rehoboth - but both San Jose choices are a long way from San Francisco. I've added links to answer the "where is Zeni" question. Assab would indeed be a lot more convenient. Please report back wherever you wind up going!


                          Zeni Ethiopian Restaurant
                          1320 Saratoga Ave, San Jose, CA 95129

                          Rehoboth Ethiopian Cafe & Restaurant
                          655 N 6th St, San Jose, CA 95112

                          1. re: mdg

                            I can not compare them to Zeni or Rehoboth since I have been to neither.
                            As you said they are a long way from SF so if EB was going to be too far, I would not think that SJ would be in the running.

                        2. for vegetarian, i enjoy waziema

                          1. Cafe Rehoboth replaced Zeni as my main Ethiopian spot in San Jose some years ago. I feel like they use better overall ingredients and no corn oil. I've almost certainly eaten more meals there than any other south bay restaurant the last few years.

                            There's a new place in San Jose at Bascom and San Carlos called Walia. Though it's at a seedy corner, it's pleasantly and brightly decorated, run by a welcoming and capable family who aims to make this work. It's moving into becoming a contender for the top spot for me. Among its virtues is that their injera is made mostly of teff and doesn't use the self rise leavening that lots of Ethiopian places do. So it tastes great and doesn't leave me feeling bloated, a matter of which they're conscious. Most of what I've tried there so far in a few visits has been very strong. Definitely check it out if you're a south bay denizen. They're happy to answer questions and tell you about what they're doing there.

                            I can sympathize with the poster in San Mateo who has to cover ground to eat Ethiopian. I wish there were some Ethiopian restaurants in places where there isn't an Ethiopian population. I feel like some of the places in Oakland and San Jose are hurt by their locations and the amount of competition, Rehoboth among them. Put a place like that into the quantity over quality morass that is Mountain View's Castro St. and I'm inclined to think they'd pack the place regularly. Easy for me to say, though. I might be wrong for one thing and the start up costs would be too high for another.

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: maigre

                              Thanks for the news about Walia - we'll have to try this! Adding a link...


                              Walia Ethiopian Cuisine
                              2208 Business Cir, San Jose, CA 95128

                                1. re: maigre

                                  Finally made it to Walia. The food there is very tasty indeed - we had the veggie combo and the doro wot. However, it struck me as being a bit less spicy (especially the doro wot) and a bit oiler than the food at Zeni. Walia has some nice Ethiopian beers as well.


                                  Walia Ethiopian Cuisine
                                  2208 Business Cir, San Jose, CA 95128

                            2. Not an expert on Ethiopian; I now only eat the cuisine about once a year. In the 90's was told by Ethiopians in Palo Alto that they traveled to Asmara (OK, that must be Eritrean) in Oakland for the best and most authentic food (they dismissed a number of other places that I knew in San Jose and Berkeley).

                              Recently, East Bay friends also agree that Asmara is a top choice (although there appear to be more alternatives these days). I still go there and enjoy it. Not much for decor, but still serves tasty food. What's the CH consensus these days?

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: jman1

                                I've eaten at a good number of Oakland Ethiopian places and I wasn't impressed by Asmara at all. I thought the spicing wasn't as complex and sophisticated as places like Cafe Colucci or Enssaro. I've only had one dish at Addis, but I'd put it ahead of anything I had at Asmara as well.

                                Cafe Colucci
                                6427 Telegraph Ave, Oakland, CA 94609

                                366 Grand Ave, Oakland, CA

                              2. I'd also like to hear what people say about the more upscale places. I've been taken and also been recommended both Sheba Lounge and Rassela's (i.e. newer location) over the past few years by Ethiopians. Considered tops? Or, perhaps just nicest?

                                Which reminds me of reading about a restaurant review site in Ethiopia (or maybe Eritrea) a few years ago. It was described that reviews where mostly about the rest rooms.

                                Sheba Lounge
                                1419 Fillmore St, San Francisco, CA 94115

                                1. The comparative lack of tang of the injera at Cafe Rehoboth made it seem bland at the beginning of the meal, but it's good at serving its purpose once you get used to it. The tastes of the elements of the veggie and meat combos are well-differentiated with good ingredients; the messer wot and doro wot were our faves. Personally I'd go to whichever of this place and Colucci was closer. Since I'm equidistant, I'd choose Colucci just because it's spicier.

                                  6 Replies
                                  1. re: bradluen

                                    I occasionally get cravings for Ethiopian cooking, but the last several times I ate any--here and in LA--it was mild as baby food. I've kind of given up.

                                    1. re: Fine

                                      request - no DEMAND raw kitfo and extra spicy. pull no punches, I want what you would serve your most adventurous family member.

                                      although I gotta admit I get a chuckle when it's described as baby food served on a damp dish towel cause the lame stuff can be like that.

                                      1. re: hill food

                                        Thanks. Alas my raw flesh days are behind me.

                                        In the early days of Ethiopian/Eritrean places (I discovered my first in the early 80s and I think it might have been new), most dishes were good and hot.

                                        I grow habaneros, so I mean hot when I say hot.

                                        1. re: Fine

                                          I appreciate you guys wanting spicy. but we are talking about a four year old who won't eat anything the least bit spicy LOOKING. :-)

                                          1. re: Kim Cooper

                                            So did you go to any of the restaurants suggested?

                                            1. re: chefj

                                              No, we couldn't find a date around then, and she's gone on to other studies. However, we may yet do it someday -- today we went to her five year birthday party.
                                              the few times I've had Ethiopian I've loved it.

                                  2. I'd never had Ethiopian before this weekend, and I've already been twice to Abesha in Temescal, Oakland.

                                    Best deal is to go for lunch and get the veggie platter for 7.99 - 5 veggie eats + salad + injera. Their spiced tea is also yummy. My favorite veggie thing is the yellow lentils - very mild and good for children.