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Dec 17, 2012 12:10 AM

Ethiopian veggie sampler showdown [Oakland/Berkeley]

As takeout a few nights back, seven friends and I compared the vegetarian samplers from eight Ethiopian places in Oakland/Berkeley. It was hardly a scientific or particularly well-informed endeavor, but lots of fun:

1. All places except Ensarro were roughly along a 1.5 mile stretch of Telegraph. I asked for the food to be spicy and for them to give us the injera with the highest amount of teff possible. The restaurants and their respective injeras were:

= Injera with lots of teff =
Ahadu: dark, lots of if not completely teff
Asmara: dark, lots of if not completely teff
Cafe Colucci: 100% teff
Ensarro: 90% teff

= Injera with light amount, if any, of teff =
Red Sea
Ethiopia Restaurant (you can special order teff injera a day in advance)

At least with these vegetarian dishes, we all seemed to like the teff-heavy injeras. I've forgotten which, but one of the teff-light injeras was far more sour than the other seven.

2. Flexibility of menu: 7/8 places had a set vegetarian combo. Abesha allows you to pick 5/7 vegetarian dishes and we picked the ones that best matched the other restaurants (plus, I don't like their mushroom wot).

3. Dark red hot sauces served in a separate container (only two places):
Ethiopia Restaurant's had an overpowering presence of cardamom
Addis' was a bit gritty, but had a nice flavor and kick.

We each rated the three dishes common to all 8 restaurants: kik-alicha (split peas), gomen (collard greens), and mesir wot (red lentils). Summing our ratings, we found:

4. Kik-alicha: Ensarro's had a bright, fresh, spicing and took the lead. Cafe Colucci and Addis were runners up. Ahadu's was in last place.
5. Gomen: Ensarro's was the best, and was the only one that still had crunch. Cafe Colucci and Ethiopia Restaurant were runners up. Abesha's was the most overcooked and in last place.
6. Messir Wot: three way tie between Ensarro, Abesha, and Cafe Colucci. Some criticized Cafe Colucci's spicing for being too raw. Others preferred it for that same reason.

7. Tumeric colored dishes containing cabbage, potato, and/or carrot (atakilt, alicha denich, or tekil gomen): Chunks were too coarse to permit fair voting across 8 people. The cabbage portion of Ensarro's Atakilt was my favorite, and was the only one to really bring out the cabbage's natural flavor.

8. Other standout dishes:
Red Sea: their silssi was a delicious spicy red dish with onions and green chiles
Ethiopia restaurant: listed as carrots and zucchini, but maybe something completely difference, they extracted a massive amount of sweetness from whatever orange thing was there.

9. Cheese: From memory, Ensarro, Ahadu, & Colucci, perhaps others, included a spreadable cheese. When I've dined at Addis, they've included a somewhat crumbly cheese, but I don't recall whether it was present in the takeout.

10. Conclusions:
Top-tier: Ensarro & Colucci. Aside from having great core dishes, both samplers had fresh cheese and excellent injera.
Mid-tier: Ethiopia Restaurant & Addis. A few of their dishes were described as lemony.
Lower tier: Red Sea, Asmara, Ahadu, Abesha

Sometime next year, we plan to compare the remaining eight Ethiopian places in the area: Finfine, Sheba Dining, Messob, Shashamane, Yayu, Cafe Romanat, MLK Cafe, & Cafe Eritrea d'Afrique (Eritrean, but some similar dishes). Ensarro & Colucci have been my top picks since moving to the Bay Area, so it would be nice to see if something else competitive emerges.

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  1. Excellent report! Your tiers comport with my experiences (I've eaten at six of the eight). Of the ones you have left, I've only eaten at Messob (which I'd put in your middle tier), so I'll be interested to see how they shake out. I know Finfine has a lot of fans.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Ruth Lafler

      Cool, nice to see convergence of opinion--- the goal of this is to find one restaurant to explore more in depth. There was no dish that had a unanimous vote, but people were comfortable with saying the Ensarro and Cafe Colucci were the best overall. The group's votes also mapped onto my previous experience with meat and veggie dishes at 5/8 places we went to.

      Even though we didn't like the food overall (too much of a spice resembling garam masala), perhaps the biggest find was the silssi at Red Sea. I have no idea how it compares to the silssi at other places, but since you can order Red Sea's food at the Kingfish pub across the street, it'll be a stock dish for me.

      One other thing... lots of Ethiopian places are closed on Tuesdays.

    2. What a great list, thanks! I love Eritrean/Ethiopian food and Ensarro was the first place I went when I moved here. It was so good I've only been to one or two of the others, but Cafe Eritrea and Cafe Colucci are both on my short list.

      1. sounds like fun and thanks for doing this. Cafe Colucci has always been my go-to in the East Bay, now I have to check out Ensarro.

        1. Nice report!

          We've been trying the various Eth/Erit places but it's amazing how many there are. Our 'approval rating' is a little different, but we weren't doing an even head-to-head comparison - Red Sea is especially variable. We like a mix of the meat and vegetable dishes.

          We DON'T like:

          Qualified yes on: Abesha. It's good, but the food doesn't really stand out compared to Eritrea or Enssaro. We like the mushroom wot, but the shurro is so-so. You have to like mutton (which we do) to eat the Yebeg Alicha Wot.

          Definite yes and rated by preference:
          1) Cafe Eritrea: Avoid the terrible Queen of Sheba meat platter and the meat dishes are excellent. But they're stingy on the veggies, and I have no idea why.
          2) Enssaro: Probably the best all-around, but the shiro at Eritrea is so amazing, it brings Eritrea to the top of our list.
          3) Red Sea: Here's the thing about Red Sea--go there for the $6.99 lunch buffet. I'm serious (and I normally HATE those AYCE places)! The wait service is ridiculous; it takes forever. But the buffet gets you in/out at lunch with massive amounts of good food, in 20 min. flat.

          Red Sea is not the top quality in food, and a little too variable. BUT, they make the exact same food for the buffet that you would order off the menu, making lunch the hands-down best value around. And the injera, although very tangy, is the freshest possible at lunch: they are making it in the back as fast as they can. You can tell the difference the moment you pick it up.

          1. Awesome! Thanks for doing this. Colucci is my favorite too. I especially love the mushroom dish.