Nitsuh Woldemariam wasn’t especially fond of plain ayib, the crumbly fresh cheese that’s a staple of Ethiopian cookery, so she started mixing it with threads of spicy collards. It’s an inspired addendum — the bitterness of the greens lashes the sourness of the granular white cheese — and speaks volumes about Woldermariam’s sharp kitchen instincts.
For many Charlestonians, just having an Ethiopian restaurant in town would count as a victory. Yet Woldermariam’s Ethiopian Taste Food & Coffee (which I discovered by eavesdropping on a tweet from @CharlestonFood) isn’t a mere quota-filler: The restaurant, which opened last week, is serving up accomplished dishes likely to please longtime fans of the genre and convert eaters new to the cuisine.
There are very few Ethiopians in Charleston, although the community’s grown with the arrival of Boeing. But Woldermariam’s husband (he and Woldermariam’s mother, who helps with the cooking, compose the entirety of the staff) told me the restaurant is designed to appeal to everyone. The well-lit dining room is spacious and tidy, and I’d guess the supremely hospitable Woldermariams wouldn’t flinch if customers asked for forks.
More importantly, though, the food is terrific. When I visited this weekend, I didn’t sample the doro wot, sometimes described as the true test of Ethiopian cooks, but I was taken with the subtle spicing, varied textures and saturated colors on a sampler plate of simmered split peas; lentils; cabbage and sautéed string beans. Woldermariam daily makes pita bread — puffy, irregular ovals that recall the pinnacle of Sunday morning pancake sessions — and injera.
The spicing of the lamb tibs is regionally slippery: The mix of cubed meat and onions could have originated almost anywhere in the Mediterranean, although the ambiguity’s easily remedied with a dash of berbere from a side dish. Like all entrees, it’s served with two slices of Italian bread, a mound of green salad (holdovers from Ethiopia’s colonial period, like the pasta and tiramisu on the thrifty menu) and rolls of spongy injera.
Tibs is typically a tomato-swamped stew, making the injera obligatory. Here, the meat’s served dry, but that’s no reason to skip the foamy, sour flatbread. In cities with dozens of Ethiopian restaurants, the injera is unchanging, because every restaurateur buys from the same bakery: It’s a treat to eat in a dining room which produces its own version of the teff-based mainstay.
Woldermariam has never before cooked professionally: Since she and her husband moved here from Ohio a few years ago, she’s worked in health care. But friends and relatives urged her to open a restaurant; Ethiopian Taste Food & Coffee is a testament to the wisdom of their advice.
Ethiopian Taste Food & Coffee, 5060 Dorchester Road, is open Tues.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. and Sundays from 1 p.m.-9 p.m. (The posted hours differ slightly from the hours on the website, which differ slightly from the hours on the restaurant’s business card. If you’re planning on a late dinner, call first.)
Credit cards are accepted, and the restaurant serves beer and wine. For more information, call 647-1792 or visit ethiopiantastefoodandcoffee.com. To see the menu, read on.