Take a Bite

Ethiopian Love opens in Chinatown

April 29th, 2015
PHOTOS BY NADINE KAM / nkam@staradvertiser.comA feast of meat and vegetable tibs and wots served atop injera bread with rolls of injera for grabbing morsels of food.

PHOTOS BY NADINE KAM / nkam@staradvertiser.com

A feast of meat and vegetable tibs and wots served atop injera bread with rolls of injera for grabbing morsels of food.

Second chances are a good thing. If not for second chances, I might never have stepped foot in Ethiopian Love after a botched trip to its Kapahulu Avenue pop-up last fall.

Sharing space with a ramen restaurant, only a few tables were designated for Ethiopian food and the lines were for the Ethiopian half of the restaurant.

My friends and I waited about 45 minutes just to be seated, and after trying to place an order about 15 minutes later, we found most of the food on the menu was unavailable. We finally settled on a couple of dishes, and so began a long wait. We were hungry, but no water or drinks were offered, and neither was any sort of light appetizer to assuage that hunger.

By this time, one of our friends had to leave and she was mad she ended up having to eat at a fast-food restaurant.

A half hour after she left, we were informed there was no injera bread, which is the staple of Ethiopian meals. What? Oh well, we would settle for the couple tibs and wots, or wats, we had ordered. At about this point, two other groups of people who were also waiting to be fed decided to walk out.

The restaurant space is beautiful, with imagery and posters reflecting life in Ethiopia.

The restaurant space is beautiful, with imagery and posters reflecting life in Ethiopia.

When no food materialized after another half hour, we were getting nervous. It was closing in on 10 p.m. and we had already been told several times food was coming, but nothing showed up. If we didn't find something to eat, every restaurant would be closed.

So, we left. There was no, "Wait, you could take it out," no apology or anything. Just, "OK, bye!"

Luckily for us, Yakitori Yoshi was still open and we were so happy to be fed, and I never wrote about the Ethiopian restaurant. What's the point if readers could not count on being fed? Maybe if I were on Yelp I would write about the epic fail, but the Honolulu Star-Advertiser is Hawaii's newspaper of record and for a review of record I need to be as fair as possible — and that means repeat visits to get a more complete picture of good and bad.

Earlier this year I heard the Ethiopian restaurant was shopping for a brick-and-mortar site downtown and thought maybe its owners had finally gotten their act together. And so they have had to become more serious. Service is still slow because of the work that goes into the cuisine, which may be problematic for a lunch crowd, but if you have the time, it's worth the wait for the delicious tibs (meat sautés) and wots (stewed meat or vegetables) served atop sour, spongy injera bread, all meant to be eaten with your hand.

I was lucky to have been guided through the process when lived briefly in Washington, D.C. as a loaner to USA Today when Gannett's so-called "The Nation's Newspaper" was being staffed by its network of regional newspapers across the country. There, I enjoyed cuisines from around the world, and in Adams Morgan found Red Sea, an Ethiopian restaurant that has since closed.

Part of the woes of service and availability is that the fermented injera, made of teff flour, is temperamental and batches can go bad. I've read accounts of those who grow up in Ethiopia saying the first batches made at home are never good.

Owner Abraham Samuel is happy to share details of Ethiopian culture and cuisine.

Owner Abraham Samuel is happy to share details of Ethiopian culture and cuisine.

Ethiopian Love owner Abraham Samuel said that the injera did not like Kapahulu's water, causing them to rely on bottled water. They are doing better with Chinatown water, but the sourness does fluctuate. Personally, the less sour the better, to my taste.

Vegetarians will find much to love about this restaurant, with an array of stewed lentil and cabbage dishes, and the romi pictured, a sauté of mushrooms and veggies.

Vegetarians will find much to love about this restaurant, with an array of stewed lentil and cabbage dishes, and the romi pictured, a sauté of mushrooms and veggies.

This Ethio Love lamb special is topped with Ethiopian cheese with the texture of feta, but much lighter flavor.

This Ethio Love lamb special is topped with Ethiopian cheese with the texture of feta, but much lighter flavor. This was one of my favorite dishes, along with alicha wot, a turmeric-braised beef.

I also loved azifa pictured here in the foreground, a refreshing salad of lentils, onions, jalapeño and lemon juice. In the background are doro tibs, sautéed chicken, and awaze tibs, sautéed beef.

I also loved azifa pictured here in the foreground, a refreshing salad of lentils, onions, jalapeño and lemon juice. In the background are doro tibs, sautéed chicken, and awaze tibs, sautéed beef.


I hope people will try this cuisine and the unique aspect of eating with the hands and the practice of gursha, a gesture of love and affection as families sit down to a meal together and feed each other. You don't have to do it if it makes you feel uncomfortable, but it’s said that food from the same plate tastes better with gursha.

It is a practice that can only be possible in a society that prizes friends and family. Here, it's a practice we tend to share only with young children and via the custom of bride and groom feeding each other wedding cake as part of the matrimonial ceremony. In Ethiopia, it’s practiced daily as a means of bringing families close while allowing them to share the details of their day and impart life lessons.

But, it comes with its hazards, as you'll see in the video below, where unpracticed me chomped down on my friend's finger, causing my Twitter followers to quip, "Lucky there's no rabies in Hawaii," and giving me the new title of yakuza-maker!

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Nadine Kam is Style Editor and staff restaurant critic at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser; her coverage is in print on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Contact her via email at nkam@staradvertiser.com and follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Rebel Mouse.

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