The first time I encountered the phenomenon, I was sitting at the bar at Sheba's Ethiopian Kitchen, my fingers pinching a small portion of raw beef from the bread-lined plate in front of me. Two men were at the end of the bar, also eating with their hands but from a large pile of stir-fried lamb spiked with slivers of jalapeño peppers. I asked them where they thought the best Ethiopian cooking was to be found in Dallas.
You'd think that might be a difficult question, one that would require some careful deliberation over a few more pinches of spicy bits of lamb. Sheba's isn't far from the intersection of Greenville Avenue and Forest Lane, the epicenter of Ethiopian cooking in Dallas. But they didn't hesitate. Instead they pointed to the bar and said they've been coming here since it opened. The best Ethiopian food in Dallas was sitting right in front of me.
I took another look at my kitfo. The meat was finely minced and glistened with warm butter stained red with a mixture of spices. My waitress had looked surprised when I asked for it raw; most white customers who visit Sheba's prefer their meat cooked through, a tactical error considering that kitfo loses its smooth, silky texture when it's heated. Like at most Ethiopian restaurants, Sheba's meat is served with ayib (a mild, crumbly cheese) and plenty of injera (the country's signature spongy bread), but here the flavors feel more pronounced. The dish is spicier, richer and buttery to the max.
Sheba's Ethiopian Kitchen
Sheba's Ethiopian Kitchen
8989 Forest Lane, 214-570-8828, shebaskitchen.com. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, noon-11 p.m. Sunday. $$
Vegetable combination $9
Behg tibs $13
Behg wot $12
Doro wot $11
Sheba opened in 2011, the second restaurant from Mesfin Gebre and his wife, Kibrework. Their first, Queen of Sheba in Uptown, opened in the 1980s. After six years they sold the business and took jobs in retail, and Queen of Sheba moved to Addison. The Gebres, though, got the bug again, opening the new spot on Forest Lane, and it's not just the kitfo that stands out here.
Doro wot is Ethiopia's national dish, and it's on every Ethiopian menu ever written. The thick stew of chicken legs always includes hard-boiled eggs cooked until their yolks are a sulfurous green. You can stare into the murky depths and wonder which came first, but your time is better spent ripping off a piece of injera and digging in.
If you're new to injera it can take some getting used to. The bread is made from teff, a tiny grain popular across the Horn of Africa, and sometimes wheat, rye, barley or other grains. The grains are soaked in water, sometimes for days, resulting in a slow fermentation that produces the same lactic-acid tang that marks good sourdough. The thin, runny batter is poured out on a skillet like a massive crepe that rises as it cooks to produce a springy, bouncy bread with so many holes it rivals a luffa. It's used as a serving plate, as cutlery when torn into little shards, and finally as an ingredient, when older bits of bread are ground up and dressed with onions, tomatoes and a lemony vinaigrette to make fit-fit.
For now, considering Ethiopia's national dish is sitting in front of you, focus on injera's role as a fork, using pieces to pull tender chicken away from the bone, while pores in the bread act like tiny spoons and soak up the oily sauce. Ethiopia's official spork complements the dish with its earthy and sour tones, jiving with the subtle sweetness of onions cooked down into jam in the rich, mahogany-colored sauce.
Similar dishes can be found elsewhere on the menu, and each swims in a sheen of orange-colored oil. Look for any dish that ends with "wot." There's a rich beef stew called khey wot, and a behg wot, which makes use of tender strips of lamb meat. Both will warm your insides in ways Texas chili cannot.
Look for "tibs" to decipher another group of dishes. Lega tibs offers pieces of beef sautéed with onions and jalapeños not unlike tender, Ethiopian-flavored fajitas. Behg tibs does the same with lamb. Both exhibit enough smoke and char to make you think they've been grilled.
Other dishes, like the gored gored, aren't as easy to decipher by name, but the menu tells you enough. Think kitfo's older, tougher brother, and get ready for large chunks of chewy meat coated in spices and butter, served in the raw.
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At that little bar at the back of Sheba's I sampled just a few dishes shy of the entire menu. While I have some favorites (the behg wot, doro wot and kitfo) that visit me in my sleep, none of the meat dishes I tried at Sheba were disappointing, which can make picking just one on whatever evening you've stumbled through the front door difficult. Better to stumble with friends — Ethiopian food is served on trays large enough to obscure an extra-large pizza. It's meant for sharing.
The vegetables cause less decision fatigue, because you can order a little of each for just $9. Considering the meat entrées run $11 to $14, it's worth it to order the vegetable entrée as an accompaniment. Both dishes will give you enough to sate two diners, and you won't have to miss out on vegetables that taste every bit as good as animal parts.
Picture vegetable dishes plated in a ring around an injera-lined plate — red lentils and powdered chickpeas, both cooked down into intensely flavorful and thick stews, cabbage and carrots cooked with potatoes, salad greens dressed in a lemony vinaigrette, and more, depending on the day. Picture whatever entrée you've ordered glistening in the center. Picture a plate of injera ready to help you shovel food into your face until you're ready to split. When you're looking at a plate like this, hungry and lost in the moment, you just might think that in fact you are looking at the best Ethiopian food served in Dallas.
I've asked the same question of customers at Lalibela, just up the road, and Ibex just down Greenville Avenue. I've asked at Desta and other restaurants, too. The answer has always been the same, which made me start to wonder if it's not about any one address or kitchen, but rather the cuisine and tradition. The best Ethiopian restaurant is whatever one you're in. And Sheba's is one of the best places to start.