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Lalibela Ethiopian Restaurant | Columbus, OH

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Ethiopian cuisine has long been one of our favorites. You may have noticed this in my thinly-veiled idolatry of my hometown Ethiopian joint Little Africa. Once you have a favorite restaurant of a certain type, you constantly find yourself trying to recreate it anywhere else you live or travel. Sometimes that restaurant can live up to the original experience; sometimes it’s different enough that it’s equally good on it’s own footing. That’s how we’ve arrived at Lalibela being our favorite Ethiopian restaurant in Columbus.

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Lalibela is a simple and quiet restaurant in Whitehall on South Hamilton Road. The small parking lot out front is often crammed, but you can find parking next to the grocery one door down. The entryway lands you next to the bar, ringed with bright neon blue lights. You’ll typically find a few regulars – all Ethiopian – sitting around the bar. As a caucasian, I find this to be re-assuring when I’m seeking out ethnic food. When I’m in the minority, I’ve found the right place.

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Either a server or the owner will lead you further back to the dining room. Usually there is music playing, and often the TV in the corner is showing Ethiopian programming. We’ve seen the restaurant busy, but never crowded. The servers are soft-spoken and incredibly friendly. During every meal the owner comes by to check in on you with a big smile and a welcoming handshake.

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We usually visit Lalibela with a group of four to six people, so we order a shared platter of mostly vegetarian dishes. These include things with grape leaves, tomatoes, onions, root vegetables, various lentils, occasionally with a meat dish of stewed beef. We often add a side of shiro, which is yellow peas simmered in veggies and spices.

Ethiopian food is eaten by hand. You tear pieces of injera, a spongy and slightly sour bread made from teff flour, and scoop up individual bites of the food. The entire platter is served on a layer of injera, with extra rolls of the bread served on the side as well. The joy of this type of food is eating together. Rather than sitting hunched over our individual meals, we’re turned toward each other, reaching in and around our arms to scoop up bites from the same plate. This is something I think we can learn to do better in the U.S. We often forget that food is community.

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Lalibela has a full bar as well, and we’ve often ordered one of the Ethiopian beers available. The St. George Beer is a light lager with a honey finish. It’s a perfect complement to the rich and often spicy food.

Like I said, Lalibela is our go-to for Ethiopian food in Columbus. It’s a little bit of a drive, out to Whitehall, but we’ve found that the food and welcome is more than worth it.

If you want to visit:
Lalibela Ethiopian Restaurant
1111 S. Hamilton Rd. (map it!)
Columbus, OH 43227
(614) 235-5355
lalibelarestaurant.net
Also on Facebook
Open daily 9a-2:30a
Lalibela Restaurant and Bar on Urbanspoon

Beyond Breakfast: Little Africa | Grand Rapids, MI

I didn’t grow up an adventurous eater. It wasn’t until college and grad school that I began discovering world cuisines beyond Americanized Mexican or Chinese, with the occasional foray into Indian or Japanese food. And my hometown of Grand Rapids, MI isn’t exactly known (or at least wasn’t 10 years ago) as a hotbed of international cuisines. But just as my wife and I were finishing up college, a friend introduced us to a little restaurant just east of downtown called Little Africa. That’s where we first tried Ethiopian food, and it blew us away. Nearly every visit to my hometown includes a stop here to see the owner Loul Negash and enjoy a platter of his vegetarian food. His food is so incredibly rich and flavorful that eating it is almost like revisiting an addiction. I could easily consider Little Africa one of my favorite restaurants of all time.

Saying that sets the bar high, so maybe I should add that hometown restaurants tend to have a special place in my heart. So there’s a comfort factor that other places just can’t replicate. The Little Africa is simple and quiet, a single room with a few rows of booths. Ethiopian music (I’m assuming) plays quietly over the speakers. Loul clatters around in the back.

Every meal starts with tea. Loul serves other beverages, but we’ve never gotten them. Why? Because this tea is a delicious, complex, steaming, crack-laden drink of the gods. It’s hot and heavily spiced. We once tried asking him for the recipe, and he quietly deflected the question (understandably). From what we can taste, there are hints of cinnamon, clove, ginger, mint, and everything else that is delicious in this world.

This is perhaps one of the most beautiful sites in the (culinary) world to me: a fresh platter of Little Africa’s vegetarian fare (they only serve vegetarian dishes, although a lot of Ethiopian cooking does involve meat. But just look at it. The colors. The textures. The variety. Different legumes and vegetables and spices. I couldn’t tell you the name of a single one of these dishes; we just tell Loul that we’d like the vegetarian platter, and he brings out enough for the number of diners. But I know that there are dishes made with lentils, peas, injera, grape leaves, lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, beets. We’ve had items made with pumpkin, too. Probably my favorite of the bunch is the dark orange/brown pile, just above center. It’s made with shredded injera mixed with a fairly hot spice.

Ethiopian food is eaten with your hands. Before the meal, Loul brings out small plastic bowls with a pinkish liquid: a lightly soapy concoction in which you wash your hands. The food is served on top of a bread called injera, made by fermenting teff flour, a grass that’s indigenous to Ethiopia. Injera is moist and spongy and a little bit sour. You tear off pieces of it and scoop up the food.

Ethiopian food is rich with spices and oils, so by the end of the meal the injera is soaked, which keeps any of the deliciousness from going to waste. I have never not left an empty plate for Loul to clean. I simply can’t. There is always more room in my stomach; my tastebuds are always eager for another a bite. My family still makes fun of me for the one time I polished off the leftovers by rolling the injera into a burrito and downing it. But I stand by my decision.

We’ve had other good Ethiopian food, but nothing has come close to Little Africa. Perhaps, because it was our first foray into the cuisine, it automatically became the standard by which we judge all similar fare. Regardless, this food has such special meaning to us, to the point that I think it has healing properties.

If you want to visit (and trust me, you do):
Little Africa
956 E. Fulton St. SE (map it!)
Grand Rapids, MI 49503
(616) 222-1169

Little Africa on Urbanspoon

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