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Tag Archives: vegetarian

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

Beyond Breakfast: Da Levee | Columbus, OH

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For a white kid who grew up in the Midwest, it’s surprising how much spicy cajun and creole cuisine feels like comfort food to me. We never made it growing up, I’ve never been to New Orleans, but as long as I can remember I’ve loved this style of food. I love the heavy load of spices. I love how it’s filling. And I’ve had some great examples, from Creole Kitchen in Columbus to the amazing Bourbon N Toulouse in Lexington, KY. But just as worthy is Columbus’ Da Levee.

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Da Levee has a small storefront in Short North, just north of Buttles Avenue, and in the winter months the warm food and atmosphere make me want to hole up there for hours. It’s probably good that we don’t live closer to Da Levee, because if we did I’d find myself justifying multiple visits per day.

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The specials rotate regularly, so it’s best to keep an eye on their Facebook page. The owner Justin Boehme is good about posting an image of the day’s menu, so it’s easy to find out what they’re slinging. The menu shifts between varieties of etouffee, chowder, red beans & rice, maque choux, gumbo, jambalaya, po boys, and burritos. I’ve never had a bad meal at Da Levee, but my personal favorite is the chili cheese etouffee with crawfish. Here’s a sampling of some of the other dishes we’ve enjoyed:

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Spinach and mushroom etouffee. A good etouffee is probably my favorite dish in the repertoire of creole/cajun food.

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Red beans and rice with sausage.

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Spinach and mushroom etouffee again. All entrees are served over rice, with a side of toasted bread that’s heavily buttered and seasoned. Perfect for scooping up bites.

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White chilikin’, aka white chicken chili.

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Two bonuses about ordering: you can pick small plates ($5), large plates ($7), or half-and-half plates ($8). This lets you adjust to your appetite, and it allows you to easy sample and share with a table full of friends. The second bonus is that many of these dishes are vegetarian and can be made vegan, so it’s an easy go-to with group of varying tastes and needs. Okay, I lied. There are three bonuses, the third of which is that this type of food blends flavors and spices so well. Most dishes are some version of a slow-cooked stew, so the meat, veggies, beans, and heavy dose of spices have time to combine. In single-digit temperatures like today’s, a plate of spicy hot meat and vegetables piled on rice sounds like a bit of home to me.

Aaaaaaaand… now that I’ve finished this post, I’m hungry and want to go there for lunch today.

Plan your own visit:
Da Levee
765-C N. High St. (map it!)
Columbus, OH 43215
dalevee.com
Also on Facebook and Twitter @DaLeveeCajun

You can sometimes catch Justin at the Da Levee Express food cart, or during late night hours out the backdoor of the restaurant at Backdoor Burritos, serving Fridays and Saturdays until 3 a.m.

Da Levee on Urbanspoon

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