Capt. Gastro has dropped wheels in Africa. Today, the Dark Continent disguises itself as Cafe Lalibela, a highly regarded Ethiopian restaurant east of the Arizona State University veldt in Tempe.
Now, having ordered the sampler platter ($6) and received his trio of kye sega wat (spicy hot beef), doro wat (spicy chicken) and gomen (chopped collard greens) with injera, an enormous tortilla, the Captain graciously awaits his knife and fork, which will surely follow.
But none comes. This seems to concern no one — in fact, others in the crowded diner chew and chat happily beneath a bright array of woven baskets and African tapestries — without a flash of silver to be seen. The captain’s concerns bring him halfway to the counter before he realizes he is the ugliest of Americans.
Injera is your fork. A rubbery, off-white fork, perfect for squeezing the delicious bits of spicy beef or chicken and bringing them "home." Once he is convinced this isn’t a sting operation run by the Catholic nuns of his youth, the Captain readily enjoys eating with his hands. His sole regret is that he had consumed almost half of his "fork" while waiting for cutlery.
Many East Valley diners have no idea what "Ethiopian dining" means. It’s an exotic, rewarding experience of rich spicy stews — called wats — that wrap themselves around finger-size cubes of beef or chicken and leave a subtle, spicy buzz on the lips. Ethiopian cuisine also capably covers the vegetarian side of the street with a repertoire of lentils, chickpeas, cabbage, carrots and potatoes. And then there’s injera — made from teffe flour, it looks like a shaving towel, tears like a crepe and tastes remarkably like sourdough bread. You will not miss your fork. (Cutlery is available for those who insist on stainless steel, but the one diner brandishing a fork at Cafe Lalibela seems woefully out of place — like someone swinging a garden rake at pudding.) Until chocolate spoons are perfected in the lab, injera remains the Captain’s favorite edible utensil.
While it doesn’t exactly bristle with African eating establishments, the East Valley is a tale of two Ethiopias — Cafe Lalibela, long established in Tempe, and Tina’s Ethiopian Cafe, just finding its feet in Chandler. Cafe Lalibela, long the celebrated master, holds court in a strip mall off University Drive. (Note: The strip is tearing up its parking lot at the moment, so look behind the backhoe.) Inside, the atmosphere is airy and casual, with brightly colored prints and wall hangings against a backdrop of African music and art. It’s great food, reasonably priced, and an enjoyable African getaway that’s walking distance from ASU.
Tina’s also features authentic and Ethiopian cuisine at reasonable prices. The restaurant shares a squat, brick structure with the El Coyote Sports Bar, and features a charming decor of African baskets and carvings complemented by Ethiopian tourism posters ("Thirteen Months of Sunshine"). Forks and extra napkins are available on the tabletop, and the proprietress will happily explain dining basics to the timid or uninitiated. Like Cafe Lalibela, Tina’s offers an array of salads ($1.50), vegetable dishes ($4 to $5) and chicken and beef wats at various wattages (mild, moderate and spicy, priced between $5 and $6.) In its opening weeks, Tina’s lacks the polish and presentation of its neighbor to the north. But the Captain hopes it will establish a strong Ethiopian foothold on Arizona Avenue, just north of Chandler Boulevard.