Photo by Doug Trattner
Sampler platter from Habesha
When it comes to pandemic-friendly cuisines, Ethiopian food might rank near the bottom of the list in terms of sanctuary, above all-you-can-eat buffets but well below fast-casual take-out joints. More than simply offering a meal, Ethiopian restaurants are rightly beloved for the communal experience they cultivate, one that finds small groups huddled around a sprawling platter of shared food.
The landscape that awaited Habesha Ethiopian & Eritrean Restaurant when it finally opened its doors in West Park last winter was less than ideal. But the support they received from neighbors and friends helped them survive until local vaccination rates climbed to the point where indoor dining returned and people once again felt comfortable enough to take a seat with friends inside a restaurant.
I, for one, mourned the temporary loss of Ethiopian food from my life over the past year and a half. It’s not that the dishes do not travel well (most hold up remarkably well, in fact), but carry-out is no substitute for an unhurried meal with companions outside the home. So as soon as we had the opportunity to do so, we made plans to check out Cleveland’s newest destination for foods from the Horn of Africa.
Partners Jamal Musa, an Eritrean refugee, Tigist Gebremichael, who hails from Ethiopia, and Hiriyti Weldesalsie, who is from Eritrea, had been endeavoring to open Habesha for more than a year. During that time the owners offered a taste of what was to come at various farmer’s markets around town – and they were encouraged by the response. After securing a permanent home in West Park, management spent a considerable amount of time updating the space before finally welcoming their first guests in late 2020.
Habesha is a long, narrow space that is modestly appointed by modern restaurant standards. Apart from a few artistic adornments and a wall clock permanently stopped at 3:10, the restaurant is largely bare. What the room does offer diners is an everchanging potpourri of intoxicating aromas, from fresh-baked ambesha bread and the just-popped popcorn that accompanies the coffee ceremony to the million and one herbs and spices that comprise berbere.
If you’ve only enjoyed spongy injera at Ethiopian restaurants, that ambesha ($7) is a welcome departure. A pie-shaped wedge is cut from a large round. It’s warm, airy and faintly sweet. It is paired with a mild, fresh cheese and awaze, the spicy berbere-based sauce that accompanies most dishes. Don’t sleep on Habesha’s stellar sambusas ($6). These crispy fried triangles come filled with either beef or lentils, but the lentil version is so savory, well-spiced and satisfying that I don’t see why anyone would opt for the meat variety.
Diners at Habesha, as at most Ethiopian restaurants, are presented with myriad options with respect to vegan, vegetarian and meat-based dishes. Most can be ordered on their own or as part of a combination platter. Those platters can be comprised solely of vegan items, a mix of vegan and vegetarian dishes, strictly meat items or a blend of the above. Even being familiar with a fair number of Ethiopian standards and having personal favorites, I always go the combo route because who doesn’t prefer variety. And if there’s a dish that you really love that doesn’t happen to be included in any medleys, it can always be added to the mix.
The doro wot and veggie combination ($18) is a brilliant, colorful feast that veers from long-simmered chicken on the bone to chip-chopped collard greens. Doro wot is dark, deeply flavored and fiery from the berbere spice blend. Wisely, there are two servings of crisp, refreshing mixed salad to cool things down. Alongside those items are red and yellow lentil stews, a mild and comforting portion of tender potato, carrot and cabbage and more of that soft white cheese. Those looking for something meatier should consider ordering the awaze tibs ($17), a stir-fry of beef or lamb flavored with garlic, ginger and rosemary and perfumed with heaps of exotic spice.
All of the above is arranged like vividly hued oil pigments on a painter’s palette, but in this case the board is a wide platter lined with injera, the famous fermented flatbread made from teff. Foods are scooped and eaten out of hand using torn pieces of the tangy bread, more of which arrives in a near-bottomless basket. The rip-and-dip process is half the fun.
Habesha is the first Ethiopian restaurant on Cleveland’s west side and one of only three in the entire city. Given that the food is wholesome, intoxicatingly delicious and more than reasonably priced, this cuisine should have made larger inroads in the region by now. Here’s hoping the westward expansion continues.
Habesha Ethiopian & Eritrean Restaurant
16860 Lorain Ave., Cleveland