Admitting your ignorance of Ethiopian cuisine at Tana only makes its smiling proprietress even more enthusiastic. And that's just what we did when we wandered into her six-month-old eatery, located deep in a part of Anaheim where tourists fear to tread.
As newbies, we needed her special attention with that most formidable of tasks: choosing what to eat in a cuisine we knew nothing about. Although the menu had only 10 items, we didn't know the wot from the shiro, the tibs from the kitfo. So she educated us, even as she handled the front of the house alone. Her sisters were in the kitchen, busily cooking.
While we waited for our food, swooping ceiling fans circulated the perfumed smoke of incense around the room. A flat-screen monitor was tuned to the Ethiopian version of C-Span. Fluorescent bulbs flickered. From the back, hidden from the salmon-colored dining area, came the comforting sounds of pots clanging, things sizzling.
When the proprietress came back to our table, she bore a plate as large as a pizza pan. Our eyes widened at the sight, and our mouths watered at the smell of cardamom, turmeric and garlic. This was the “Vegetarian Delight,” eight generous and colorful samplings dotting the serving tray like paint on a palette.
Underneath it all was injera, the cornerstone of any Ethiopian meal. The flatbread/pancake is as essential to the cuisine as rice is to Asian food. Even more injera came in a basket, rolled up like dinner napkins, ready to be torn bit-by-bit to sop up the stews and pick up chunks of meat. Moist, pliant and riddled with thousands of tiny pits like a honeycomb, injera defies comparison to any other type of flatbread or pancake. For one thing, it's as tangy as sourdough, made from fermented teff flour. And it was to be our only utensil (other than fingers) for a night of communal eating.
On the last remaining piece of open real estate on the injera-carpeted plate, our server poured doro wot, a dark, lava-red chicken stew consisting of a drumstick and a hard-boiled egg. This was a concoction so rich with paprika it looked dangerously toxic. The yebeg tibs—tender nuggets of lamb stir-fried with onions—came sweetly spiced, but looked tame next to that chicken.
To finish the presentation, she added a few spoonfuls of crumbly homemade cheese to our overloaded serving tray. “Use this to cool down your tongue if things get too hot,” she said. She left us to check on the other tables, but we were quick learners, pinching up some cooked spinach with a swatch of injera and dragging another ragged piece through the shiro, a smooth paste of milled split pea made aromatic with spices. We tried not to drip the yemiser wot onto our shirts; the red-lentil purée tasted like the most intense bean dip on earth and was a dry-cleaning nightmare worse than chocolate.
Then there was a coarse and slobbery canary-yellow mound, similar to creamed corn, but as rich as sweet polenta. Another item was a dead ringer for pico de gallo with all of its components (chopped tomatoes, onions, jalapeños) except cilantro. But the most winning veggie dish was cabbage and carrot wilted with spiced butter. Naturally sweet and soft, it deserved to be on the menu as a stand-alone dish.
Between bites, I swigged Harar beer, a crisp Ethiopian lager perfect for dousing the latent burn brought on by the food. The injera also cooled our palates, and since every morsel of meat and veg went down with an equal portion of the bread, our stomachs hit their limit much sooner than anticipated. We abandoned the injera and took to scooping up the remainder of the meal with our fingers. Thank goodness for the sheet of glass that protected the tablecloth from our dribbling digits. Our shirts, on the other hand, were a lost cause.
Tana Ethiopian Restaurant, 2622 W. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, (714) 229-1719. Open Tues.-Wed. N Sun., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $30, excluding drinks. Beer and wine.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.