Anyone who’s enjoyed Ethiopian food has experienced the distinct satisfaction of eating with nature’s original cutlery, fingers, but not everyone knows the mesob.
Gojo Ethiopian Restaurant has two of these multicolored, round, woven wicker baskets that stand about 3 feet tall. The lids resemble colorful hats that, when removed, reveal shallow wells to hold the large round trays on which Ethiopian food is served, called gebetas.
Perfectly nondescript from the outside, Gojo’s interior maximizes a boxy, strip-mall space with burnished gold walls covered with small straw bowls and paintings on animal hide. Pendant lamps of brown fabric over copper deliver flattering lighting under a green galvanized steel ceiling, and the restaurant’s two mesobs are surrounded by cushioned barrel chairs. For the less adventurous, there are plenty of white-cloth-covered tables.
Vegans and vegetarians rejoice, because you have religion on your side here. Meatless fasting periods required by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church mean that vegetables aren’t an afterthought — and it shows.
A fine but filling way to launch a meal, tomato fitfit ($6.95) rounds up chopped tomatoes, onions, jalapeños and garlic tossed with injera — the traditional spongy bread that underpins Ethiopian food — for an African-accented riff on panzanella. Crisp and steaming from the fryer, sambusas ($4.95) arrive filled with ground beef or lentils, both getting a flavor kick from onions and jalapeños.
A distant cousin of grilled cheese, kategna ($6.95), ramps up the sass with the multiple notes of the spice mixture berbere and the Ethiopian cheese ayib — something of a cottage cheese and ricotta hybrid — hand-rolled inside toasted injera. Bet you can’t eat just one.
Like biscuits under gravy, injera works as a foundation for the sautéed, stewed and simmered meats, as well as the vegetables and legumes, providing a bready palette upon which to paint flavors.
Take the yebeg alicha wat ($15.95), a stew of braised minced lamb. Tumeric announces itself first, but the rich character of slow-cooked lamb is right behind it. Awaze, the fiery red chili pepper sauce that takes its heat from the Ethiopian berbere, is what your mouth will remember fondly after eating chicken tibs ($12.95), laden with chunks of chicken, onions, garlic and tomatoes guaranteed to seduce your taste buds. A drumstick and bits of chicken breast meat populate doro wat ($14.95), a traditional stew with hard-boiled eggs.
All are noteworthy for the masterful layering of flavors without any muddiness of the individual notes.
Giving the Southern version a run for its money, the chopped collard greens of gomen wat ($9.95) take their pungency from garlic, onions and ginger. Azifa ($9.95), a seasoned green lentil salad with onion, garlic and jalapeño served cold, is both full-bodied and zesty — so good that my companion gets an order for a vegetarian potluck he’s headed to later. Full of refreshingly clean flavors, it’s another example of how every single ingredient shines in harmony.
Best ordered rare for authenticity, kitffo ($12.95) carries the same warning about the dish’s fiery spiciness that I’ve received at other Ethiopian restaurants. Mitmita — a blend of chili peppers, cumin and cloves — is the culprit, but it’s mitigated by herbed butter worked into finely minced beef. There’s heat, just not unbearably so, in the surprisingly generous portion.
A small bar faced with red tile and unfinished pine blocks arranged Jenga-style offers beer ($4.50-$5), including an Ethiopian option, and wine ($6-$8) that includes tej, an Ethiopian honey wine ($9.50), reminding you that you’re not in fast-casual land.
Coffee ($3.95) is central to an Ethiopian meal, so Gojo roasts its beans daily with cloves and spices before opening. Served on a tray in a clay jebena, a distinctive vessel with a long, narrow neck and a pouring spout, along with tiny, delicate cups called sini and a small stand of burning incense, ordering a cup contributes to a distinctly Ethiopian vibe.
Service on both my dinner visits is low-key and obliging, but on a sunny Saturday afternoon with the front door flung open, the restaurant nearly fills up for lunch and service gets much slower, albeit always with a smile.
But warm air is wafting in from outside, African music is playing and two children are amusing themselves swiveling on barstools while their adults enjoy a meal nearby.
Every group with a sky-blue gebeta on the table is smiling, pinching up bites. The Ethiopians call that good feasting. S
Gojo Ethiopian Restaurant
Daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
10188 W. Broad St.