Beyond the traditional mid-Atlantic and Southern fare that Washington is rooted in — crab cakes, oysters, fried green tomatoes and the “everything-tastes-better-on-a-biscuit” school of thought — there are two cuisines that give the capital city some personality: Salvadoran and Ethiopian.
In many neighborhoods across the District, you’ll find outposts of one or perhaps both types, filled with diners from all walks of life. In a city that sometimes feels like it has no real identity of its own, nearly every child growing up in the nation’s capital has probably munched on a cheesy pupusa or delighted in using injera for picking up food instead of a fork.
Injera, the spongy, pancake-like flatbread made of an ancient grain known as teff, does characteristically serve as both a vessel and a utensil at the table, with one large circle of injera topped with mounds of wat, or stews — from lamb to lentils — accompanied by more injera, used to scoop up the various dishes. While many of the local Ethiopian restaurants tend toward casual mom-and-pop eateries, Etete (1942 Ninth St., N.W.) aims a bit higher. And, yes, forks may be involved.
Since opening in 2004, Etete, named for matriarch Tiwaltengus “Etete” Shenegelgn, has had a markedly different vibe — more bistro than bodega — with a chic modern interior and an emphasis on more upscale versions of traditional Ethiopian cuisine. Now reopened after a six-month renovation and under the direction of new chef Chris Roberson, Etete continues to offer a modern spin, starting, logically, with injera.
Interestingly, once you’ve had an injera taco, it makes perfect sense. The simple act of folding that spongy bread and toasting it lightly makes it the perfect vehicle for turning typical Ethiopian dishes like berbere chicken, red lentils, and collards greens into taco fillings. Topped off with ayibe, a soft farmer’s cheese similar to queso fresco, and a sprig of cilantro and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a tastier handmade taco.
While staying true to classic Etete recipes like Doro Wat, chicken stew flavored with berbere, a spice mixture that usually contains garlic, ginger, fenugreek, chili peppers and a variety of other herbs and spices, Chef Roberson has continued to cross-pollinate in the kitchen with influence from other cuisines and techniques, from prawn gumbo to sous-vide short ribs. Light-as-air black eyed pea fritters served with a pungent peanut sauce borrow from West African flavors, while a play on hummus and pita is made with yellow lentils and — you guessed it — injera, now turned into slightly addictive crispy fried chips.
While you’ll still find frosty bottles of St. George lager imported from Ethiopia, along with a traditional housemade honey wine, Etete has also stepped up its cocktail game with a drinks menu that continues to explore traditional flavors in new ways. For the 24 Karat, passionfruit and carrot juice combine with Bird’s Eye chili syrup, tequila and St. Germain for an imaginative reboot of a Tequila Sunrise, while tequila stars again in the Golden Coconut, an elegant aperitif made with coconut milk, lime juice and turmeric.
On a side note, if you’re still jonesing for Salvadoran instead of Ethiopian — and something at a lower price point — head to the H Street corridor, where Taqueria & Rosticeria Fresca (701 H St., N.E.) is offering up, as the name implies, a really fresh take on Salvadoran specialties.
Utilitarian and squeaky clean, Taqueria offers the full range of dishes usually found in other popular Salvadoran/Mexican eateries around town — tacos, empanadas, burritos — but where sometimes these same dishes can seem heavy and overly dependent on cheese and lard, Taqueria’s versions are light and bright, with notes of herbs and citrus.
For well under $10, go ahead and indulge in pupusas accompanied by caraway-spiked cabbage slaw, tender strips of fried yucca or perfectly-puffed gorditas topped with fresh crema and slivered jalapenos. Lacking a liquor license, Taqueria still offers some tasty liquids, so be sure to sample the pineapple agua fresca or a papaya milkshake. You won’t miss the alcohol. There’s plenty of other spots to grab a cocktail on H Street, but not so many that offer a truly refreshing bite, especially during a sweltering D.C. summer.
Kristen Hartke is a D.C.-based food and beverage writer. Follow her kitchen adventures on Instagram, @kristenhartke.