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Sep 30, 2012 04:45 PM

Cafe Eritrea vs Red Sea: head to head comparison [Oakland]

I wrote this up for the "Moving to Oakland. Where to eat?" thread. But it was so long, I thought it might be better split off separately. We've been eating Ethiopian/Eritrean food since it first appeared in the Bay Area, and Asmara was our stand-by when we moved to the East Bay. Regrettably, Asmara changed hands and the food slipped drastically downwards. So we're working our way slowly around some of the other Eth/Erit restaurants, although we still have half a dozen more to go!

These were the specific differences between Cafe Eritrea and Red Sea my spouse and I saw in our meals (two at Eritrea, one at Red Sea).

Eritrea pros/cons:
- Generous with the meat but skimpy with the veggies, which is very odd
- Shiro, chickpea puree, is sensational
- Zigne, beef stew, also wonderful
- Doro alicha, chicken curry, excellent
- Wonderful honey-milk-fruit smoothes to drink
- "Queen of Sheba" meat platter – skip it. No seasoning, no sauce, grossly overcooked. My meat-loving spouse was very unhappy.
- They DO NOT seem to 'dumb down' their chile levels for newcomers. We appreciate that, because we like it seriously hot.

Red Sea pros/cons:
- Service is sslllllllooooowwwww. At least during lunchtime! If you want to get out in 1/2 hr, do the buffet.
- The buffet is a bargain at $6.99. But you won't know what you're eating, because there's no signs and the waitress will just tell you, "Oh, that's chicken (or lamb, or beef)." The trick is, ask her what number it is on the menu. THEN you'll know.
- Bamiya, the okra-potato in a mild red pepper sauce, is great for okra lovers like us. We so rarely find okra anywhere except soul food restaurants, it's a real treat.
- Tumtumo: yellow lentils in turmeric sauce with garlic and ginger – very good, better than the Birsin Yemisir Wot: stewed red lentils.
- Hamli Gomen: braised collard greens. I liked Red Sea's version better than Eritrea's.
- Alitcha Dinish: potatoes sautéed in turmeric sauce. Terrible. Bland and boring. One of the worst renditions of this dish I've ever had - and normally it's one of my favorites.
- Sebhi Dorho, a hot curry with a chicken drumstick. Sensational! The chile oil saturated the injera it sat on, and was yummy. The sauce had the tang of honey wine vinegar.
- Lamb alicha, a mild curry with the meat in small dice. Spouse liked Red Sea's lamb alicha much better than Eritrea's chicken version. You can't go wrong with either, though.
- Zigne, a spicy beef stew. Good, but Eritrea does this better. Red Sea's Sebhi Dorho was spicier and much better.
- two small mixed green salads with sliced tomatoes, no dressing. Minus for Red Sea. Eritrea's standard salad of shredded romaine with a tart vinaigrette goes much better with the spiced braises and injera.

Summary: Eritrea's better overall, a little less greasy. But certain dishes Red Sea does very well, and at lunchtime, that buffet is remarkable. You are getting the same food that we paid twice as much for, ordering off the menu.

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  1. I returned to Red Sea after several months. The verdict remains mostly the same (after a couple of meals at Ethiopia Restaurant, where we found the food to be acceptable, and the service, good) - the food at Red Sea is good (a lamb and a beef dish, both spicy, both tasty), and the service was just atrocious. Polite, and atrocious. So bad this time that it may keep me from returning for dinner for quite some time. The sambusas actually came long after we were done and our plates were cleared, i.e., for "dessert" instead of for an appetizer, and remained on the bill.

    1. Thanks for the head to head. Has anyone tried the relatively new place over on Shattuck, Abesha. It is behind the Walgreens next door to the Sacred Wheel cheese shop?

      2 Replies
      1. re:

        We plan to try it within the next month, as reports have been good. Will report back afterwards.

        1. re:

          Sorry I lost track of things and did not report back on Abesha. We went with the same couple that we did Eritrea with, and our verdict was unanimous: okay, but not quite as good as Eritrea or Colucci (Colucci is their favorite; we thought it was okay but don't really approve of the heavy use of olive oil).

          Abesha is good but not quite as interesting. Their shiro is very different than Eritrea; it's spicy and a little more textured. We did like their vegetable dishes, easily as good as Cafe Romanat.

          We made yet another trip to Eritrea last week and found the meat dishes slightly erratic from the previous dinner. The beef kulwa, which we had liked in a visit Dec 2012, was terrible this time.

          We also got the vegetarian combo to get a better handle on those dishes - the meat-and-vegetable combo gives one so little veggies we couldn't tell before if we liked them of not. The shiro is still lovely, but the collard greens were mediocre and both red and yellow lentils just so-so. The potatoes were average, although the cabbage was a standout. Overall, Eritrea was a little disappointing this time (May 2013).

          We go to Red Sea ONLY for lunch. The buffet lunch is pretty amazing; we've gone five times since Oct 2012. One day they even had tripe! Always in/out within 30 minutes. It's inexplicable why their table service is sooooooooooooooooooooo slow.