Dining: Sacramento's Queen Sheba Ethiopian restaurant a hands-on experience

Published: Sunday, May. 2, 2010 - 12:00 am | Page 6I
Last Modified: Monday, Aug. 13, 2012 - 9:16 pm

Although Queen Sheba has its core of loyal customers, this casual restaurant faces a basic problem: Think of Ethiopia – the country, its history, all that's been in the news – and the first thought for most folks is hardly, "Oh goody, let's eat."

That part of the world is best known to Americans for political strife, a severe and enduring drought, and alas, famine. Yet there is so much to discover, beginning with the wonderful food.

Perhaps it would require a willingness to stretch your culinary horizons to walk in off the street, sit down and order food that seems so exotic, with names like doro wot, gored gored and awazie beef tibbs firfir.

As far away as it may seem, this food is also eminently accessible, with pleasing flavors that dance and sing and soothe on the palate. There will be no wincing or frowning here.

It's like music you've never heard before but immediately start to hum. Think of the look of Indian food and that tendency to blend in a stew, but with a different range of flavors.

Vegans and vegetarians are likely familiar with Queen Sheba, especially for its lunchtime buffet ($7.50), which is, incredibly, entirely vegan (no animal or dairy products) and absolutely worthwhile even for the meat-and-potatoes crowd. This Broadway restaurant has such a following from Davis that the owners will soon open a second location on E Street in downtown Davis.

Ethiopian cuisine is vastly different from what most Americans are used to, served on large communal platters and, at the table, scooped or grabbed by hand while holding a thin, crepe-like piece of bread.

In Ethiopia, it is even customary for loved ones to feed each other. (Go for it if you want, but no smooching, please.)

The family-run Queen Sheba is an earnest, straight-ahead practitioner of traditional Ethiopian cuisine, and diners need not be reluctant to dig in and explore the cooking.

This restaurant, which moved from a hideaway spot on Howe Avenue to its current location in 2007, promises to become a fixture in the melting pot that is the rich and diverse Broadway ethnic dining scene.

On this one street, the food choices are so varied that Capital Public Radio's Elaine Corn devoted an entire year to reporting a series on its dining scene.

At Queen Sheba one recent evening, three of us ordered entrees and were advised by our helpful and charming server, Sefanit, to have the food brought out on a single platter.

This is the traditional way of eating in Ethiopia, a culture that has somehow missed the boat on the contemporary Western standard of sitting alone in front of the flat screen, inhaling Taco Bell or Panda Express while watching reruns of "Jon & Kate Plus 8."

I believe the phrase "visual feast" has been used before, so I won't describe our platter that way. But the display of food did indeed showcase an array of colors and flavors and textures. The melding of aromas rose with the steam, tempting us to dig in.

But where are the forks? The knives? At Queen Sheba, utensils are superseded by the aforementioned thin bread called enjera (pronounced just as it is spelled). It is rolled up and is so soft, spongelike and beige that newcomers sometimes mistake this traditional bread for a napkin. The tangy flavor is reminiscent of sourdough, though this is made from an exotic grain called teff.

This is the time to be a hands-on eater. Unfurl the bread, set your sights on a portion of the food, and scoop the food with the bread. Chat with your companions. Repeat. I imagine this may seem off-putting to some, but it was fun and certainly helped get us in the spirit of trying this style of cooking.

Several combination platters are available on the menu, and that's the best (and most economical) way for groups to try the variety of offerings.

The awazie lamb tibbs ($11.99) was a welcoming combination of tender meat and complex flavors, with a finishing kick of heat on the tongue. The dish is made by gently stir-frying cubes of lamb, then adding garlic, ginger, paprika and bell peppers. This is the most popular item on the menu.

The doro wot ($10.99) offers a surprise nestled in the thick, dark sauce: a boiled egg. In Ethiopia, doro is reserved for special occasions, much like the big turkey dinner in the United States. The flavors, based on onions, peppers and an array of spices, come together slowly. Nothing is rushed. There are no shortcuts.

"The longer you cook it, the more the flavor comes out," Zion Taddese, Queen Sheba's owner, told me.

The awazie chicken tibbs ($10.99) is similar to the lamb dish and very enjoyable for its range and depth. The key wot ($9.99) is a beef dish that was also delicious. The beef is made with several spices and hot pepper sauce, then finished with an amazing herbed butter.

That butter, one of the hallmarks of Ethiopian cooking, plays a starring roll in several dishes, including kitfo ($10.99), perhaps the most coveted of the meat dishes at Queen Sheba.

As Zion Taddese told me, the special butter takes about an hour to prepare. It is boiled with 10 different spices until it turns clear. The butter absorbs the multitude of flavors and then is filtered. That part of the process is reminiscent of ghee, the traditional Indian butter, though this Ethiopian version is loaded with flavors.

Kitfo may not be for everyone – the beef is served either raw or rare. But if I did not tell you that, I bet most folks who ate it would not know. It is actually lightly heated and may be called medium-rare.

It is truly an excellent dish, with a bright reddish-brown hue and a depth of flavors that define this style of cuisine. The housemade cheese that accompanies this meal is bright and mild in flavor, with a soothing, creamy texture that balances the spiciness of the meat.

I was tempted to call it a must-try. But you really don't need meat at all to enjoy the food of Ethiopia.

The day we had the kitfo, I also dug into the vegan buffet. Again, this may not be for everyone. And again, if no one told them, I bet most customers would have an enjoyable, eclectic eating experience and not miss the meat.

For vegans and vegetarians, Queen Sheba is a must. Since fasting is very common in Ethiopia, the vegetable-based dishes are a great national tradition. Turns out, Taddese told me, the mainstays of most meals in Ethiopia are vegetables, with meat as an accompaniment, pretty much the opposite of most Western meals.

One of the appeals of Queen Sheba is how accommodating the options are. There are plenty of meat choices, and they are all nicely prepared. But it is certainly easy to go meatless here.

Those non-meat (and nondairy) dishes are also available individually on the dinner and lunch menus. They include kit wot (yellow split peas made with garlic, turmeric and a curry sauce), gomen (a combination of cooked spinach and collard greens) and miser kik wot (lentils cooked in hot spices).

During one of my evening visits to Queen Sheba, the service was excellent, and overall it was always solid and helpful. Yes, forks are available if the bread thing just isn't working for you.

I do note that the servers are not always in a hurry to deliver the final bill to the table. But since I was intent on embracing Ethiopian cuisine, I decided to be less Western and thus less in a hurry.

Yes, Queen Sheba has a public relations challenge, as the owner well knows.

"From my experience, most people expect something else when they think of Ethiopia," she said. "It's like Indian food, but a lighter spice. Once they try it, they realize it's not from a different planet."

After exploring this wholesome approach to cooking, I can tell you it would be a shame to be held back by your assumptions. To explore the world of food, in fact, is to realize that what you thought you knew is often different from what you should know.

For vegans and vegetarians, Queen Sheba is a must. Since fasting is very common in Ethiopia, the vegetable-based dishes are a great national tradition.

QUEEN SHEBA RESTAURANT

1704 Broadway, Sacramento

(916) 446-1223

www.queenshebas.com

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday, noon-10 p.m. Saturday, noon-9 p.m. Sunday

Reservations: Only for large groups

Full bar? Beer and wine only

Vegetarian-friendly? Very

Takeout? Yes

Overall: 3 stars (good)

The restaurants of Broadway offer many adventures, and this is one of the most satisfying. Don't be put off by your assumptions. The food here is complex but user-friendly.

Food: 3 stars (good)

From the meatless lunchtime buffet to platters of food for hearty meat eaters, Ethiopian cuisine is not only diverse but surprisingly accessible. The flavors here may be exotic, but they ring true.

Service: 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)

We had one excellent server, and the others were quite good. It feels wrong to ding the service for being on the slow side. This is a culture that takes time to eat. If you're in a hurry, it may take some prompting to get your bill.

Ambience: 2 1/2 stars (fair)

If the gold standard of Broadway ambience is the cluttered nightmare of tongue-in-cheek (I hope) kitsch that is the Tower Cafe, this is practically minimalist. There are Ethiopia-type decorations on the walls that offer a little warmth.

Value: 3 stars (good)

The combination platters are a good deal and offer diners a chance to explore the cuisine. The food is meant for sharing and most dinner entrees top out at $11.99. The vegan lunch buffet is a good deal at $7.50.

Noteworthy: Don't be put off by food customs and rules. If you want to use a fork to eat, feel free to ask. No shame in that, especially if you don't want to get filled up on bread. No one gets it right all the time. The owner of Queen Sheba, for instance, says she loves sushi but eats it with chopsticks – traditionally, sushi is eaten with your fingers.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Blair Anthony Robertson



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