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Cafe Lalibela – Tempe, Arizona

One of the first things that caught my attention during a 2006 visit to Cafe Lalibela were beautiful, brightly painted depictions of revered Christian events such as Christ carrying the yew hewn cross to Calvary. The art shouldn’t have surprised me. Ethiopia’s (especially the city of Lalibela’s) historical ties to Christianity span several centuries. Lalibela, the city for which the restaurant is named, is one of modern Ethiopia’s holiest cities and a center of pilgrimage for much of the country.

With a population of very nearly 100% Ethiopian Orthodox Christian, Lalibela is renown worldwide for its monolithic churches built during the reign of 13th century monarch Saint Lalibela for whom the city is named. The names of several places in the modern town and the general layout of the monolithic churches themselves are said to mimic names and patterns observed by Saint Lalibela during the time he spent as a youth in Jerusalem and the Holy Land.

Cafe Lalibela serves both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, garnering several accolades (including Best Vegetarian restaurant in Phoenix by New Times magazine) for its unique cuisine. For me, it was more important that my vegan friend and colleague Karen enjoyed her introduction to Ethiopian food. By meal’s end she was making plans to scour the internet for the recipes and spices that made her inaugural Ethiopian epicurean experience memorable.

Traditional Ethiopian cuisine consists of Injera and wat. Injera (pronounced in-jeer-ah) is a thin, crepe like bread with a very subtle sourdough-like taste. Made from teff, a grain indigenous to Ethiopia, it has a very unique spongy texture. Ethiopian meals are eaten by tearing off a piece of injera with your hands (an experience that may remind you of tearing fabric) then scooping up some wat with it (very similarly to how native New Mexicans use tortillas). Wat (pronounced what) is a stew like sauce, which can be made from vegetables or meat or both.

Cafe Lalibela recommends that each serving consist of a combination of three items, typically one non-vegetarian dish and two vegetarian dishes (although you can create your own combination). For the convenience and edification of diners inexperienced with Ethiopian food, the menu includes several individual platters as well as suggested combinations for parties of three. A glossary of general terms will also introduce you to menu items you may never before have seen.

Ethiopian food isn’t starchy or heavy and the portions at Cafe Lalibela aren’t particularly prodigious, but you’ll walk away fully sated, albeit eager for a future visit during which you’ll undoubtedly want to try something else…if you can tear yourself away from ordering the favorite that captivated you during previous visits.

Such is my dilemma. I find it ever so difficult to tear myself away from one of my favorite Ethiopian specialties, shorba, a soup made from lentils, carrots, potatoes, onions and vegetable stock. Shorba is reminiscent of the best vegetable soup you’ve ever had, but with an entirely different flavor as the vegetables seem to share, rather than compete for, your attention. The broth is hearty and absolutely delicious.

Another favorite is the Yebeg Alicha Sega Wat, a mild lamb stew made from tender lamb cubes simmered in kibae (a clarified, spiced butter), onion, herbs and tumeric (a musky, peppery spice often used in curry). It is every bit as flavorful (albeit wholly different) than the mutton stew popularized in New Mexico by Navajos.

Diners should note that traditional Ethiopian etiquette disapproves of licking fingers while eating (even though it may be tempting to do so!).

Cafe Lalibela
849 W. University Drive
Tempe, AZ
(480) 829-1939

LATEST VISIT: 16 February 2006
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 20
COST: $$
BEST BET: Yebeg Alicha Sega Wat, Shorba, Ingera