FOOD: An Ethiopian Extravaganza at Meaza

Jimmy-thumbBy JIMMY SCARANO
Falls Church Times Staff

January 29, 2010 (republished January 11, 2013)

After a few ho-hum experiences with Ethiopian food in high school I was ready to swear off the cuisine forever.  Even though Washington D.C. — especially the “Little Ethiopia” neighborhood at 9th and U streets– reputedly has the best Ethiopian dining scene in the country, I couldn’t bring myself to shell out cash for what I perceived to be nothing more than mushy vegetables and cold, sour, spongy bread.

Then I went to Virginia Tech and everything changed.

My four years in Blacksburg, Virginia, were, for the most part, unbearable when it came to eating out.   Most places were generic sports bars or pathetic attempts at Chinese, Thai, or Mexican food.  One day, out of sheer desperation for something “ethnic” I tried a hole-in-the-wall, one-woman take-out Ethiopian joint called Excellent Table, which had been open a few months and seen little business.

Given what I thought of Ethiopian food and what the standards were for restaurants in Blacksburg my expectations were unbelievably low.  But I was shocked at the freshness of the food, the spicy complexity of the lentils and meat stews, and even the injera, the ubiquitous flatbread that I’d only had cold and sour could apparently be pleasantly tangy and earthy when made right.  I went back several times, gaining more respect and admiration for Ethiopian cooking each visit.

A communal plate of injera with all the fixins is messy but delicious.

A communal plate of injera with all the fixins is messy but delicious.

Now back in Northern Virginia I’ve gotten away from Ethiopian food a bit.  I’ve neglected the cuisine in favor of so many others that I can’t get enough of.  I’ve been pulled away by the Eden Center and great Thai, Chinese, and Middle Eastern restaurants in the region.  I’ve been on Indian kicks and Lebanese kicks and Persian kicks.  And that’s a loss for me, because Ethiopian food is soulful and unique.

So this week I finally got off my rump and hit up Meaza Restaurant, one of a few Ethiopian restaurants within a reasonable grasp of the City of Falls Church.  The gargantuan, tastefully decorated eatery (supposedly the biggest Ethiopian restaurant in the United States) straddles the border between Falls Church and Arlington and has garnered rave reviews by every major news outlet.  Meaza is widely recognized as the best Ethiopian restaurant outside of Washington D.C. proper.  Many food writers even consider it to be better than the innumerable Ethiopian award-winners in the District.

Injera smells a little funky and feels a little spongy, but scoop up some spicy lentils with it and it just makes sense.

Injera smells a little funky and feels a little spongy, but scoop up some spicy lentils with it and it just makes sense.

After one visit all I can say is that I will be back.  Though it was just a single meal, my dining companion and I ordered a variety of dishes, easily enough to feed four people.  Essentially, I crammed two trips to the restaurant into one lunch.

Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first, because there wasn’t much of it.  In fact, the only thing we got that I wouldn’t order again were the sambusas, Ethiopia’s off-shoot of the fried Indian turnovers called samosas.  They were oily, heavy, tepid, and bland, and a horrible waste of calories to start your meal with.  Also, I suppose the service wasn’t fantastic.  I’ve read many complaints in reviews and online about slow servers, unfilled water glasses, and missed orders.  Nothing on my visit was too egregious, but there was some difficulty in placing the order because of the language barrier and the waitress was a tad pushy.  If you go in expecting so-so service you’ll probably leave happy.

Food-wise, everything we got after the sambusas was either good or excellent.  And all of it was greatly aided by the first-rate injera that Meaza makes on-site.  The starchy staple of choice in Ethiopia, injera is a thin-as-a-pancake, fermented flatbread traditionally made from teff, an ancient grain that resembles millet.  Most every Ethiopian dish is served atop of a piece of injera, which soaks up sauces and gravies beautifully.  Additional injera is used to pick up whatever is on the plate, including the well-drenched injera.  No utensils necessary.

Teff is expensive to get in the states (though it is grown in the Midwest now); so many Ethiopian cooks use part teff and part wheat flour to make their bread.  Meaza makes both an all-teff injera and a half-and-half one, but you’ve got to ask for the all-teff to get it and pay an extra dollar.  We opted to have our meal served on the half-and-half but got all-teff on the side for scooping.  The “pure” bread was noticeably darker in color, and, to my taste, a little bit less sour and more pleasant to eat.  For a measly buck, I’d splurge for the traditional stuff.

The dish I’d be most inclined to order again—and, actually, the one I would order every single time if I were with a big group—is the #7 special vegetarian combination meal.  Ethiopian’s treat vegetables and legumes in a delicious manner, gussying them up with chilies, ginger, onions, and berbere, an indispensable spice mixture with a laundry list of ingredients.

I won’t recount every dish on our platter, which included eight dollops of veggies and lentils, but there were a few that really spoke to me.  The mesir wat, an earthy, rich, brick-red mass of lentils, was excellent.  Wat means stew in Ethiopian and pretty much any dish involving the word is chockfull of spice and seasoning, thickened with cooked-to-death onions, and uncommonly delicious.  The jalapeno and ginger-studded collard greens, called gomen, were another standout.  They were tender but not mushy and the perfect foil for the injera.  They were also strikingly similar to the greens I’d had in Blacksburg, which gave them some bonus nostalgic points.

But the best part of the special veggie combo was one of the elements that separates it from the standard veggie combo; a salad of injera and tomato known as timatim fitfit.  I’d never had the dish before but went gaga over it after one bite.  It’s nothing more than leftover shards of injera with tomatoes, onions, and a light lemon dressing.  Yet it is so refreshing and bright, and such a great counter to the heavier stews and meat dishes.  Having tried it, I don’t see how anyone can justify getting the regular veggie combo.

To test out the meat options, we opted for the doro wat, a richly spiced chicken stew served with hard boiled eggs that is the nation’s national dish, and the lamb tibs with awaze sauce.  Both were spooned onto our communal platter of injera, which housed all the veggies from the sampler on the perimeter.

The food at Meaza is the star, but the space itself isn' too shabby either-- in fact, its quite elegant.

The food at Meaza is the star, but the space itself isn't too shabby either-- in fact, it's quite elegant.

Doro wat was often on the menu at Excellent Table in Blacksburg, so I’m quite familiar with the dish.  Meaza’s rendition was spot-on but its flavor profile overlapped too much with the mesir wat.  But that was my fault because I ordered both.  Also, I had forgotten that the dish is usually served with one scrawny piece of chicken and is mostly about the sauce, so don’t expect a plate full of chicken if you order it.

I’d never had lamb tibs or anything prepared with awaze sauce before, so it was a thrill to try both in one dish.  Tibs are a quick-cooked Ethiopian specialty, usually consisting of stir-fried pieces of beef or lamb teeming with jalapenos, onions, and garlic.  They can be eaten as is or embellished with a marinade in awaze sauce, which typically includes red wine or Ethiopian honey wine and all kinds of spices.  Our tibs could have been a tad tenderer but were still perfectly delicious—spicy, assertive, and fun to pick up with the injera.

There’s still plenty on the menu I’d like to try, including the kitfo, a famously spicy minced raw beef preparation, and any number of lamb and beef tibs variations.  If my meal is any indication most of it will be pretty darn tasty.  This is the sort of place where you should feel comfortable exploring much of the menu.  Someone in the kitchen really cares about what they are putting out.

Meaza’s also a good bargain.  The portions are generous and, considering the quality, well-priced.  You could get out at 15 to 20 bucks a person for dinner no problem.

So the only real hurdle for a City of Falls Church resident is getting there.  But if you’re an adventurous diner with a pension for spicy foods, I think a ten or fifteen minute trek isn’t too much to ask.

Meaza Restaurant is located at 5700 Columbia Pike, Falls Church, Virginia, 22941. (Click for map.) 703-820-2870.

(Editor’s Note: Kathleen Nixon has succumbed to the flu and will be taking a break for the next few weeks. Over the holidays she visited Meaza and concurs with Jimmy’s assessment of the restaurant.)

By
January 11, 2013 

Comments

11 Responses to “FOOD: An Ethiopian Extravaganza at Meaza”

  1. Jim Breiling, North Arlington on January 29th, 2010 7:14 am

    Betty and I concur with your recommendation. (Etete in D.C. is our favorite.)

  2. Ethiopian on January 29th, 2010 10:34 am

    I have been to both places and both Meazza and Etete have good food. Specially, Meazza have good food and elegant restaurant.

  3. Scarano Food Review Fan, Falls Church City on January 11th, 2013 9:34 am

    Great to have your reviews back Jimmy!

  4. Kathleen Nixon on January 11th, 2013 2:27 pm

    Jim
    good to hear I picked the right review to republish and that others concur. Sorry to disappoint the Scarano Food Review fan.

  5. TFC on January 11th, 2013 7:35 pm

    The first and only time I had Ethiopian food was at a place on Columbia Road in DC. I thoroughly embarrassed myself…..I thought the bread was a stack of hot and steamy napkins for my hands. I am sure the staff had a good chuckle.

  6. Jim Breiling, North Arlington on January 13th, 2013 8:45 pm

    What’s Jimmy doing (and eating and writing) these days?

  7. Lou Mauro on January 13th, 2013 9:06 pm

    Republishing a 3 year-old food review? I mean, leftovers are OK sometimes. But three years! The FCT cupboard must be getting bare.

  8. Kathleen Nixon on January 14th, 2013 5:32 pm

    Lou
    If you looked at the Editor’s note you would have seen that I had recently been to Meaza before the flu struck my household. I concurred with Jimmy’s assessment of the restaurant and wanted to share it again.
    As I am still down with the flu, but do appreciate a number of other places in Falls Church I have chosen another favorite of the area that I also agree with Jimmy’s assessment.
    The cupboard is not bare, the cook is just down and out with the flu.
    Kathleen

  9. TFC on January 15th, 2013 2:15 pm

    Kathleen, hope you feel better…the plague has hit here too…we had a visit to the ER recently…it’s going around.

  10. Kathleen Nixon on January 16th, 2013 5:23 am

    Thanks for the good well wishes. It has been a rough time and hard to “eat” and “review” when you can’t get out and about.

  11. J Shanahan, Alexandria on March 31st, 2016 7:11 pm

    I realize this review is now ancient at 5 years, but it’s wonderfully written and makes me want to try it, and is consistent with what else I’ve read about it, except newer reviews give service a slightly better review. Putting it on my restaurant bucket list.

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