Thick lentil stews flavored with generous helpings of onions, garlic, and ginger. Tender, slow-cooked meats seasoned with warming spices. Spongy rounds of flatbread nearly two feet across, designed to sop up every last drop of sauce.
Ethiopian cuisine is the ultimate comfort food for a Minnesota winter—but a surprising number of Twin Citians are missing out on the delights of doro wat and injera.
“When we first opened in 2016, we served many people who had never eaten Ethiopian or Eritrean food before,” says Genet Ghebre, owner of Ghebre’s Restaurant in St. Paul. “I was surprised by how many people hadn’t tried it.”
The Twin Cities is home to one of the largest Ethiopian diaspora populations in the United States, and the region has a correspondingly vibrant dining scene. Fasika, Dilla’s Ethiopian Restaurant, and the Red Sea have earned their status as popular standbys; more recent additions worth visiting include Bolé Ethiopian Cuisine and Ghebre’s. The first thing newcomers to the cuisine will notice is that it’s eaten sans utensils. Instead, diners use pieces of injera—a spongy flatbread not dissimilar to a pancake—to pick up each bite.
“Think of the injera as a vehicle for the sauce,” says Solomon Haile, who co-owns Bolé Ethiopian Cuisine in St. Paul with his wife, Rekik Abaineh. The tangy bread is made with teff, a nutrient-dense whole grain, and it tastes somewhat sour on its own. But when rolled up with stews, that flavor is beautifully balanced out.
“Other African countries may have similar stews, but they are served over rice,” Abaineh explains. “The sauce and injera combination is unique to Ethiopia, and the well-combined flavors are also what makes the cuisine unique.”
Intimidated? There’s no need to be: The staff at Ghebre’s will be happy to provide a demonstration of how to eat with injera. “We bring out a little plate of food and show them how to do it. Customers pick it up easily—we appreciate their willingness to try new things,” says Ghebre. She adds that Americans aren’t exactly strangers to finger foods: Tacos share a similar flat-bread-wrapped-around-a-filling concept.
Ethiopian cuisine is particularly vegetarian-friendly, with lentils, split peas, and other vegetables playing a prominent role. That’s due to religious reasons: Nearly half of Ethiopia’s population belongs to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which requires laypeople to fast—abstaining from meat and dairy products—for about 180 days a year. “Because there is so much fasting, there is lots of variety in the vegetarian dishes so that people aren’t eating the same thing every day,” Abaineh explains.
Another hallmark is a heavy reliance on garlic and ginger, which are used in different ways depending on the dish, along with peppers and black cardamom. Common dishes include stews (wat) made with lamb and beef, and doro wat, made with chicken, which is an especially popular dish in Ethiopian restaurants (though Abaineh says it’s a traditionally a holiday meal in Ethiopia, one that can take three to four hours to prepare). Ghebre’s Indian customers have mentioned that doro wat is similar to an Indian dish, and many of the spices she uses are similar to those used in Indian cuisine. Americans tend to worry that it will be too spicy. “But it doesn’t need to be!” she says, laughing. “You can always tell when doro wat is authentic—when it’s excellent.”
Ready to sample some for yourself? Here’s a roundup of the Twin Cities’ top Ethiopian restaurants.
Bolé Ethiopian Cuisine
A relative newcomer, Bolé Ethiopian Cuisine opened in June 2017 and has a warm ambiance perfect for a cozy date night. One of the most popular dishes here is the authentic kitfo, a specialty of the Gurage tribe (of which co-owner Solomon Haile is a member). A flavorful mixture of ground beef, chili powder, and spiced butter, kitfo is traditionally served just slightly cooked—but diners can order it medium-rare or even well done if they prefer. Newbies to Ethiopian cuisine should check out the veggie roll, a Bolé invention: legume stew spread on injera, rolled up, and then sliced, sushi roll-style. 490 N. Syndicate St., St. Paul; 651-917-9332
What stands out most about Ghebre’s Restaurant is the warm, gracious service—sitting down to a meal here feels like coming home (assuming that your kitchen also happens to feature delicious Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine). Hit dishes include red lentils, chicken and spinach, and the potato curry, made with a special family recipe. Owner Genet Ghebre is particularly proud of the meticulously prepared doro wat, which emphasizes the sauce rather than the chicken legs. If you want to try it all, there’s a buffet (Saturdays from 11:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. and Sundays from 12:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.) that includes doro wat and many of the restaurant’s other popular dishes. Ghebre’s has a full liquor license and a wine selection that pairs especially well with their meat dishes. 512 Snelling Ave., St. Paul; 651-493-4324
A beloved fixture of the local Ethiopian scene, Fasika offers a wide range of entrees, including some featuring fish. Portions are generous, especially if you opt for the “Ultimate Combination,” a sampler platter loaded with all of the restaurant’s beef, lamb, chicken, and vegetarian dishes. According to the menu, it feeds two or three, but it can easily serve a party of four or five—so gather up some friends. 510 Snelling Ave., St. Paul; 651-646-4747
The Red Sea
The Red Sea has been serving an encyclopedic menu of Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine since 1990. Start with the sambusa (savory filled pastries), and then try the siga wat (beef stew cooked with traditional spices) or the yegeb alicha (slow-cooked lamb flavored with spiced butter). There’s a vegetarian lunch buffet Monday through Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and a full bar featuring several Ethiopian beers offers a daily happy hour from 4 to 9 p.m. 320 Cedar Ave., Minneapolis; 612-333-1644
Dilla’s Ethiopian Restaurant
With a kitchen that’s open until midnight daily, Dilla’s Ethiopian is the spot for your late-night injera fix. The menu boasts a variety of meat and vegetarian dishes, plus combination platters, curries, and sandwiches. There’s a tasty lunch buffet on Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., plus patio dining in the warmer months. 1813 Riverside Ave., Minneapolis; 612-332-2898