Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Merkato Ethiopian Restaurant

Last year we went to Little Ethiopia in Los Angeles and enjoyed our first Ethiopian food dining experience at Merkato Ethiopian Restaurant, located at 1036 1/2 S. Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles. We were with Andrew and his friends Lauren and Lexi. The first thing that jumped out at us was that we were to eat without utensils: no knife, fork or spoon. We all ordered a dish and then it was served family style, all of the items placed side by side on a huge piece of grayish brown, spongy, crepe-like bread called injera. We had vegeterian (a number of different kinds of vegetables), chicken, lamb, beef and best of all, by far, fried trout. Our injera plate, below.
Injera is made out of teff flour, mixed with water, and allowed to ferment for several days. It is pliable, like a crepe, but thicker and has a sour taste. By itself, I did not really like the injera. But they give you big pieces of injera folded up, which you break off and use to scoop up food to eat. It becomes your eating utensil, much like you would use a tortilla. As alluded to above, the fried trout was incredible, maybe the best I've ever eaten. I believe it was deep fried and the frying sealed in the moisture. The skin was scored which made it easy to pull off the flesh in strips. The trout was dripping with moist goodness and taste. The rest of the food was good, but not memorable.

It is a very fun meal to do with a group because you are all grabbing from the same source and commenting on it as you go along. For me, it was unique to eat without utensils, and even though I did not love the injera, it was different and fun to try. However, the thing that will bring me back is the trout. I will have it again, and then try some other menu items to see if I can find any other hidden jewels.

Updated November 28, 2009:

Yesterday, we went again to Merkato Ethiopian Restaurant. This time we had Sam, Andrew and Dave & Bonnie Kenison. It is fun to have the wonderful diversity of Los Angeles nearby. The small area of town known as "Little Ethiopa" is marked by signs.
Merkato is surrounded by other Ethiopian restaurants, but we had such a good experience there last time that we decided to return.
The decor of the restaurant is fun with what I imagine is a very Ethiopian feel to it.
A lion and eland print.
A very different sort of warrior picture.
We were given large, folded pieces of injera to use as our utensils.
A closeup of the porous injera.
We were told that the Ethiopians like to eat the injera with butter, or butter and mitmita. Mitmita is a spicy powdered seasoning made of ground African birdseye chili peppers, cardaman seed, cloves and salt. I tried it and it was okay. I'm still not a major fan of injera.
Below is a bowl of mitmita (to the right) and awaze (to the left). Awaze is a paste of the same hot peppers, with garlic, ginger, salt and other spices. I found that I liked the mitmita better than the awaze. The awaze just had a different taste that perhaps needs to be acquired after multiple experiences with it.
Our meal below, set out on a large round piece of injera, on a large plate.
Our group at work (Sam is missing - a bathroom break). It really is a fun place to have a group meal because of the family style seating, without utensils (other than knives to cut the raw beef) and also because of the unusual dishes we tried that sparked lots of comment.
Per my earlier post, we had to try the fried white trout. It was again very good, but not as good as the first time. It had been cooked a little longer and was not quite as tender and juicy. It was still, however, very good.
As you can see, we picked it to the bone.
The trout comes with some vegetarian sides, including the beans below.
We tried the shrimp tibbs, shrimp with onions, tomatoes, green chilies and black pepper. It was nice.
One of the best dishes was the yebeg tibbs, cubes of lamb with onions, chilies and rosemary. The lamb came with some bones, was fairly well cooked (as in overdone), but was still good.
Sam ordered the dulet, spicy ground beef, liver and tripe, with butter, mitmita and onions. I have not eaten tripe in a long time, and I was more than pleasantly surprized to really love this dish, perhaps my favorite of all. I did not taste the tripe or liver at all and the general spiciness of the dish was very pleasing.
The tibbs were cubes of beef ribeye with tomatoes and green chilies. It was a little too mild and we probably ate less of it than any other dish.
The most unusual dish, and thus most fun, was the tere-sega, beef served raw with mitmita and awaze on the side. It appeared to be huge raw chunks of round steak.
We cut off relatively thin slices and then ate it with awaze, or other food. I found that I really liked it with the dulet or lamb on it. Everyone tried it, Andrew and I ate more than one of the big chunks of beef each.
Andrew wowed us all when he picked up a whole chunk of beef and started to knaw on it. The raw beef was so unusual, so difficult to cut and eat and so contrary to our western culinary sensibilities that it made it the most fun aspect of dinner.
This second visit to Merkato confirmed our first experience, a great place to take a group. However, the food this time was even better, overall, and made it a great cultural experience as well as a meal.

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