My quest for a good Ethiopian meal in this town led past a few odd diversions before the happy discovery of Kaffa Crossing in West Philly.
There was, for example, the phalanx of wrap sandwiches, bagels and mini-cereal boxes that flank the downstairs espresso machine at Almaz Cafe on 20th Street, which appeared to be little more than a standard-issue coffee shop. But when I took a seat on the small balcony overlooking this bilevel nook and studied the back of the menu more carefully, a number of East African treasures caught my eye. Among them was a memorable dorowat stew of spicy, slow-braised chicken in gingery red pepper gravy that pulled easily from the bone between pinched-off strips of sourdough injera crepe.
It was a surprisingly evocative taste of homespun Ethiopian cooking for Rittenhouse Square. But I couldn't help wondering why it wasn't the main event here, rather than the breakfast-and-latte trade of an ordinary cafe. It's a cautious business decision, perhaps. But the split personality seems to be typical of many of Philadelphia's Ethiopian restaurants.
One of the longtime stalwarts, Dahlak, shares its kitchen with an Indian restaurant, Desi Village, at its branch on Germantown Avenue. And even in University City, where the Ethiopian community first found its local footing in the mid-'80s, the food still often feels like a secondary affair.
It was at the corner of 45th and Locust two decades ago in a restaurant called Red Sea that Philadelphians had one of their first encounters with Ethiopian cuisine, where wide rounds of spongy injera flatbreads made from fermented teff flour serve as both plate and utensil for scooping up fingerfuls of spicy lentil stews and stir-fried meats. However, Abyssinia, the current resident there, is somewhat overshadowed by a hipster bar called Fiume on the second floor, where the patchouli-scented crowds pile in for live bluegrass concerts and craft beer. From the smudged-wall look of Abyssinia's scruffy downstairs dining room, it hasn't been touched up in years. But at least the food was still soulful and genuine.
I wish the opposite were true for nearby Gojjo, which has essentially become a polished college bar with Ethiopian food as an afterthought. It has the flat-screen TVs, pool table, breezy back deck, and mozzarella sticks down pat. But the Ethiopian cooking at a recent lunch was underwhelming, with rubbery bits of beef for the "tibs," a bland mound of undercooked red lentils and dull green beans.
Given the mixed focus of these other venues, I didn't know what to expect from Kaffa Crossing. Like Almaz, this cheery space on the 4400 block of Chestnut Street looks and feels mostly like an all-purpose coffee shop - with an emphasis on fair-trade arabica beans and African crafts. And that's about all owner Yonas Kebede initially aspired to when he and his cousins, Girma and Tigist Kinfu, took over a long-vacant storefront on this struggling block in 2004. They rehabbed it completely, salvaging the original tin ceiling and a hardwood floor they discovered under layers of old linoleum. They named it for the region in Ethiopia where, legend has it, coffee was first discovered by a goat herder named Kaldi in 850 A.D. The early installation of free WiFi, a point of pride for Kebede, a software engineer, was all they needed to draw a laptop-toting student crowd from University City.
It wasn't long, though, before Kebede's sister-in-law, Sofi Friesenbet, suggested adding a traditional Ethiopian menu to grow their business. There are, after all, about 7,000 Ethiopians now living in the region, says Tilahon Amera, president of the local Ethiopian Community Association, which has its office across the street. And Amera himself can often be found breakfasting at Kaffa on crushed fava bean "foule" and a spicy "tibs" saute of diced beef and onions. That's because chef Hiwot Geberetsadik's cooking is good. Very good.
Even so, it took a moment for awareness to dawn on the face of the man behind the coffee counter that we actually wanted to sit down and eat dinner - followed by a delay of several minutes before we got water and silverware. But the real double-take came when we asked for our kitfo to be left raw. Essentially, kitfo is Ethiopian steak tartare, a mince of lean raw beef blended with spiced butter. But most local restaurants begin cooking their kitfo, usually without asking, the minute an American places his order - and then it's little more than a hopped-up sloppy joe.
Tasting the kitfo raw is the ultimate barometer for the level of an Ethiopian kitchen - where the true quality of its meat and the chef's mastery in spicing are put on naked display. And Kaffa's kitfo was an adventure eater's delight. The finely chopped beef, mounded over injera next to some pleasantly bitter steamed collard greens, was so fresh it was almost like an exotic melon. Glossed to a deep ruby hue by clarified butter infused with a musky spice called "mitmita," a complex and traditional seasoning blend, each bite rang with shades of ginger, cloves, cardamom and a finishing snap of chile spice.
The mitmita comes straight from Addis Ababa, courtesy of Kebede's mom, Bogalech Tekle Selassie. Her care packages also include the "berbere" powder - another heady spice blend of slightly milder chiles, ginger, cardamom, cumin and fenugreek - a signature ingredient in most of Kaffa's dishes, including the meat sautes called tibs and the vegetarian "wot" stews. These preparations have a vaguely curried flavor that isn't far off from Indian cuisine (and Kaffa even serves some fine samosas from the Indian market next door). But what separates Kaffa from some of the city's other Ethiopian kitchens is the ability to give each dish subtly distinctive flavors and texture.
The shiro wot stew of roasted and powdered chickpeas is blended to a texture as creamy and rich as peanut butter (albeit one with an earthy kick). Onions add extra sweetness and body to the spicy red lentil puree called mesir wot, while a restrained dose of Indian curry powder accentuates the milder side of mashed yellow split peas. All are excellent in their classic form, dolloped in a pinwheel of stews atop a platter of injera bread. But Kaffa also rolls them into handy injera wrap sandwiches for the wot-to-go college crowd. A fitfit salad of chopped injera blended with chile peppers, tomatoes, lemony olive oil, and a dusting of berbere spice tasted like a cool side from an Ethiopian picnic.
Kaffa's cooked meat dishes (tibs) were slightly less distinctive than the vegetarian offerings, as most were served in a similar, albeit very tasty, tomato-based spiced butter gravy. But each was cooked with care, the tender grilled chicken ("doro") and cubed leg of lamb ("yebeg") being my favorites. Even the slightly chewier morsels of dry-sauteed beef ("derek tibs") were still notably more tender, and more intricately seasoned, than versions I'd had at other local Ethiopian restaurants.
There are no traditional Ethiopian desserts to be had here. But there's always an assortment of biscotti, muffins and vegan pastries at the front counter for the WiFi campers to nibble on. There's also a good, rich shot of organic Ethiopian espresso. Sometimes, having a cafe inside your Ethiopian restaurant can come in handy.
Next week: Part 1 of Craig LaBan's dining adventures at the Jersey Shore. Contact him at 215-854-2692 or email@example.com.