Sunday, February 20, 2011

Zenebech Injera - Shaw 2/12/2011

Zenebech Injera
608 T St NW
Washington, DC 20001

Zenebech Injera is located in a small storefront in a once crumbling corner of Shaw, just steps away from the abandoned Howard Theatre. But much like that Beaux-Arts monument, currently undergoing a $28 million renovation, the neighborhood seems to be slowly turning a corner and appears to be much safer and economically vibrant than from what I remember it being three years ago when I first patronized this restaurant.

This restaurant is primarily a carryout that caters largely to cab drivers and local neighborhood residents. But, because the secret has long since been out on this place, you do see the occasional sit-in diner who probably has come farther afield to eat what has been described by several publications and bloggers as the best Ethiopian in the District. Especially considering the lack of benches in the immediate vicinity, and, while improving, the area is still fairly raffish, unless you drove, I would suggest you eat inside.

The interior is spare, though a vast improvement over what it once was before it went through a very time consuming and (I'm sure) financially painful renovation several years ago. Before the renovation, the store was essentially a bodega with card tables and rickety chairs. Now, while the interior design still won't win any awards from Food and Wine or Washingtonian, there is far more seating available and it is not an unpleasant place to stay and eat.

You still order at the counter, though, if you choose to eat in, they will serve your meal on a silver platter covered in injera, just like in other Ethiopian restaurants, rather than dump it in a styrofoam container as they used to. All the entrees here are under $10 and can easily feed two people. So, whether this place is the best Ethiopian in the District is certainly debatable (though, in my opinion, a defensible point of view), it has to rank as one of the best dining bargains in the District. Since I was eating by myself, I decided to order the kitfo, a spiced beef tartare dish, which is a dish I very rarely get to eat because of my regular dining companions tend to veto this particular order.

My kitfo was served on a piece of injera, with two folded pieces of injera, a pile of mitmita (a chili powder made out of African birdseye chili peppers), and some Ethiopian cottage cheese, next to it. The injera, as always, was on point: soft, yet chewy with a nice sourdoughish tang that wasn't overwhelming. The kitfo, rather than being extruded through a grinder, looked like it was whipped, imparting a lovely creamy texture delicately accented with spice. It was delicious on its own or with a little injera, but better when dipped in the fiery mitmita. The cottage cheese, while bland on its own, was a nice accompaniment that cooled and refreshed the palate in preparation for the next spicy bite of mitmita covered kitfo.

Some advice: the clerk at the counter asked me how I wanted my kitfo to be prepared. Get it raw or don't get it at all. When I told the person I wanted it raw, and I made sure he understood I meant not rare, not blue, but totally unsullied by even the faintest flicker of a stovetop's warmth, the look of relief that beamed on his face was almost heartwarming. And he's absolutely right, because otherwise you are getting Hamburger Helper...and do we really need more Hamburger Helper in this world?

Although I didn't have anything else this trip, I have had their vegetable combos and some of their wats. I find their vegetable dishes to be some of the best I have had in the District, and at less than $10 for an entree that easily feeds two, you are looking at one of the best deals in DC. I find their meat based wats to be not as successful (they can be stringy and greasy), but haven't had enough to make a conclusive judgment. But, the vegetables dishes and the kitfo alone merit repeat visits for this place.

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