One of the best cups of coffee I’ve had in recent memory was at a half-empty strip mall on Dorchester Road in North Charleston. Sharing the plaza with an antique store, a salon, and a Dollar General, Ethiopian Taste Food & Coffee is brewing one of the finest cups of joe in town. It’s strong and bitter with a nutty, chocolate finish. But be warned: it takes quite a bit of time to prepare.
Of course, this is no ordinary preparation. Beans are first roasted in front of guests, the sharp coffee aroma and a touch of smoke wafting through the air. The aromatic beans are then ground, added to a tall clay pot, or jebena, boiled with water and left to steep before being served. It’s a ceremonial event, one that should be experienced as the grand finale to a monumental meal.
That’s not difficult to do at Ethiopian Taste. Nitsuh Woldemariam and her family have brought a cuisine that can be found in many major U.S. cities to Charleston. Miser wot, tikel gomen, tibs wot — unfamiliar to many, but delicious. The food is so good that it was no surprise to find three different groups of people waiting for the doors to open on a Saturday afternoon.
The space is unexciting. There are a few framed Ethiopian pictures on the walls, a couple of ceremonial trinkets in the corner, and a row of illuminated panels that are likely remnants of an old Asian carry-out restaurant. But we’re not here for the ambiance — we’re here for the food.
The menu is broken out into three sections: starters, vegetarian, and signature dishes, which in this case means meat dishes. A nice starting point is the simple but addicting sambusas, crisp golden pastry shells filled with sautéed bell peppers, onions, and spiced ground beef or whole lentils ($4/$4.50).
The vegetable dishes at Ethiopian Taste are shining stars. They offer one of the biggest and most satisfying vegetable platters that I’ve encountered ($20). It’s meant for sharing, and one order is easily enough for two people, if not three. The colorful platter is filled with vegetables of various textures. Red lentils are puréed and simmered with thick red pepper sauce called a berbere and offer bold flavor without being too spicy ($11/a la carte). Hints of cumin and turmeric add color and gusto to a blend of cabbage, potatoes, and carrots (tikel gomen). Roasted beets and potatoes, gomen (braised collard greens), and sautéed string beans (phosolia) round out a dish that’ll have even meat lovers asking for more.
In place of utensils, there’s injera, sour, spongy flatbread. It comes to the table rolled up, but you’ll quickly unroll it, break off a piece, and use it to scoop or sop up any of the delicious goodness on the plate. Forks are available upon request. It’s worth noting, Ethiopians eat with their hands, specifically the right one.
The meat selections fare well too. Tender cubes of lamb (yebeg alecha) fall apart with the slightest of touch ($16), and strips of broiled beef, onions, and pepper glisten with butter and a lot of spices to create an amalgam of unique flavor ($14). A chicken leg stewed in berbere and onions shows up with a hard-boiled egg ($17). For $32, a combination of four meats gets plated on one large piece of injera with greens, cabbage, string beans, and a very basic lettuce and tomato salad.
As one would imagine, this ain’t your average cocktail bar, but there are some libations to wash it all down. The list is dominated by domestic beer and less than stellar wine, but at least they carry Palmetto Pale Ale. And then there’s Tej, a potent honey wine, similar to mead — a traditional Ethiopian treat. Warning: it’s sweet.
Warm hospitality emanates from everyone at Ethiopian Taste. The service is provided by the Woldemariam family, and they’re happy to share details about their food and culture. There’s nothing better than the smile that comes when they are serving you that last dish, a plate of baklava ($4.50) and that freshly brewed cup of coffee that’s been in the works since the meal’s first bite. It’s worth the wait.