At Ibex Ethiopian, the Dishes (and the Vibe) Are Communal

If you're an Ethiopian-food novice, you might find yourself drawn to one of the shiny new restaurants serving it around Dallas. They're sleek, almost trendy places, serving a training-wheeled version of that nation's robust cuisine on clean white plates. They even trim their injera, the country's signature spongy bread, into pretty little squares, a la Mom and her PB&Js. They also dilute their menus with Americanized dishes that feel out of place.

Desta, tucked just south of Interstate 635, on a sparsely developed block of Greenville Avenue, offers just this type of experience. Purists can delight in its homemade injera. Desta is one of a few restaurants in Dallas with the patience to make theirs in-house. They also provide a comfortable ambiance that's welcoming to diners reluctant about dishes with exotic names.

But those with a real eye for authenticity — and a bargain — would do better to head one block north, to Ibex Ethiopian Bar and Cuisine. Look carefully or you'll miss it: Its sign is as understated as its cooking.

This is hands-on eating. Communal consumption is what makes Ethiopian food compelling. If your back's strong, have a seat at one of the family-style mesob tables that line the front of the dining room, just past the folding screens that separate the space from the bar.

The traditional tables lend themselves to sharing. They're small and intimate, keeping your friends within reach. And you should bring friends. Consider brunch on a Sunday, when coffee is served from the traditional station in the dining room. Or maybe a Saturday, a little late, when a DJ mans the booth in the back, and the place shifts from restaurant to bar to, later, nightclub.

I went a little earlier on one of my visits, sliding in quietly among Ibex's strong Ethiopian following. A trio of men watched Man City tie L.A., a snoozer of a friendly. They were sharing, too: peanuts and beer by the pitcher while they sat at the bar. A younger group sat outside on the patio tables, sipping from bottles, waiting for an evening scene to build.

Ibex's tri-fold, plastic-lined menu is easy to navigate. Numbers make ordering less of a chore with the soft-spoken staff (they don't speak much English) and dish descriptions sometimes run three lines deep, with plenty of options. Don't like meat raw? Just say so; they'll cook it to your liking. Collards not your thing? Substitutes are available. The menu's language carries a polite, welcoming tone, inviting you to explore — and the prices make it easy to do so with abandon.

Vegetarians beware: The menu's veggie section hides at least one protein landmine. The combo dish sports fish — which, to be clear, is not a vegetable — and it arrived over-cooked during one of my visits. The fins and skin were delightfully crunchy, but the flesh was dry, even when dressed with a squeeze from the limes served on the side.

That menu snafu aside, Ibex is a place where the meat-free should feel comfortable. Ethiopian cooking produces vegetable dishes that aren't a consolation prize. Ibex's may even sway devout carnivores. Order the combo without fish and a large, stainless steel plate arrives, with dishes surrounding the perimeter like numbers on a clock. The kitchen pays no attention to the items listed on the menu, serving instead whatever's on hand on a given night. The order is a gamble, and a fun one.

You might land the split-pea puree, a simple concoction of legumes boiled into a loose paste and flavored with garlic. Other lentils get a little more attention, adding onions cooked down to bring out their sugar, seasoned with spice and acid, and other tart things. Carrots lend a sweetness to cabbage tinged yellow with turmeric. Collards boiled till tender receive a little lemon to bring out a vegetal flavor.

The salad, though, whiffs. Romaine soaked in dressing that tastes like bottled Italian is misplaced, even if jalapeño peppers bring their familiar heat. A simple salad of red tomatoes, onions and peppers, dressed in lemon and a little oil, would fit better. It would also complement the kitchen's rich and hearty stews.

Somewhere it's written that every Ethiopian restaurant must serve the country's national dish. Doro wot, a hearty chicken stew, seems a little risk-adverse, like ordering spaghetti and meatballs at the sight of a red-check tablecloth. It's always spiked with chile and cardamom, and includes a chicken leg braised to oblivion and a hard-boiled egg that's cooked with an equally heavy hand.

They're traits that lean toward traditional Ethiopian cooking, but they don't appeal to typical American tastes. Over-braised chicken is a paradox, for starters. How can something submerged in warm liquid for hours seem so dry? An egg cooked past perfection is even more troubling. The white becomes tough, dense and rubbery, the yolk, green and malodorous. But Ibex breathes new life into this tired dish. Two chicken thighs, floating in a dense and onion-laden sauce, retain their succulence, while the egg yolk manages to barely hold on to a faint canary hue.

Kitfo is the Ethiopian tartar of minced steak. Ibex's version uses ground chiles and butter that lend a gritty texture to the dish. That texture can be tricky. So can its appearance. It may arrive warmed through if the waitstaff senses you're a novice, but you still may wonder: Is this cooked? It's not. It's completely raw. Have them heat it further if you like, but you're not eating kitfo anymore — more like overcooked taco meat. At that point you're better off with the tibs, kitfo louder older brother. Flavored with awazé, an acrid chili sauce that lands heavy on the palate, the pleasantly chewy strips of meat are cooked so that even the most stringent health inspector would smile approvingly.

Order the ye-beg wot, a simple lamb stew. You'll recognize the flavor if you've tried the doro, but tough, rustic cuts of lamb, still attached to the bone, make for a more deep and rich sauce. The dish was so good it temporarily converted a vegetarian on one of my trips. She couldn't resist dipping a little injera in the red-tinged oil left behind when no lamb remained. Then she did it again.

Injera can be off-putting for the uninitiated. The large, floppy pancakes have a springy texture, laced with a tapestry of holes that soak up any liquid exposed to it. Ibex's isn't made in-house. That's typical for most Ethiopian restaurants, but it's a shame. It's not as sour as it could be, and it seems slightly lifeless and under-leavened compared to Desta's chewy, tart version. But all that becomes a distant memory when the quiet but attentive waitstaff arrives, heaping dishes onto a platter lined in the bread.

Every peasant cuisine invents its own way to recycle unused starch. Ibex's timatim fitfit, a salad based on shreds of leftover injera, comes seasoned with so much lemon it sings. I loved the salad, but others at my table found it soggy, preferring the unadulterated bread served on the side.

It's a move worth emulating. Tear off a piece. Hold it with your thumb, fore- and middle fingers. Take a pinch of kitfo and drag it through the sauces mingling on the plate. Grab a little ayib, a soft, housemade cheese that cuts through heat, or a sliver of jalapeño from your salad if you want to go the other direction. The kitchen may be done cooking, but flavors still shift, every morsel tailored as every diner sees fit, one bite at a time. Be greedy. Eat until you're full. There's no need to save room here.

On the back of the menu, there's one more landmine. "Try our delicious tiramisu," it pleads, but the suggestion's a tease. I tried to order the dish over three visits and was denied each time. Dessert isn't popular in Ethiopia, and there's none available here. Linger over another drink instead. If it's late on the right night, the music will start soon, pulsing from the oversized speakers in the back of the room. By midnight on weekends, a good 50 people will drink and dance and party till close. When expats find each other and beer is involved, a story always ensues.

You could join right in if you wanted. No need for training wheels here.

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