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Ras Dashen's Ethiopian Food Is Tops

April 22, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Ras Dashen, named for Ethiopia's highest mountain, is a bare-bones cafe that has the distinction of being Orange County's first Ethiopian restaurant, and it's a valiant effort.

Owned by Michael Belay (pronounced be - lie ), and hidden away in the corner of a Garden Grove strip mall, just past an African imports store, it is all of 900 square feet. But it's just enough room for Belay and a partner to cook up injera, the crepe-like bread that truly is the staff of life in his country, and to have set up a few cafe tables and bridge chairs in a modest dining area.

Most of the atmosphere is provided by the aromas of ginger, cardamom and other spices that come wafting out of the back kitchen, although there also is a background of exotic murmuring from your fellow diners--many local Ethiopians are frequent customers. (They're probably speaking Ethiopia's official language, Amharic, a tongue descended from the ancient Arabian kingdom of Sheba.)

The few actual decorations are interesting: posters from the Ethiopian tourist board boasting of "13 months of sunshine," hand-painted goatskins that tell epiclike stories, tjeras (horsehair fly swatters) hanging from the ceiling and a few colorful woven baskets strewn about. It all adds up to a rare cultural encounter, doubly attractive because Ethiopian cuisine is a true delight.

It all begins with that injera, a sourish spongy crepe made from an Ethiopian grain called teff. Most injera in this country--and you can find plenty on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles or on 18th Street in Washington, D.C., where Ethiopian communities are situated--is inauthentic, made from buckwheat flour and reminiscent of a stretched-out blini. But Belay makes his from a coarse brown flour actually milled from teff, a version of which is grown in Idaho.

The only problem is that the flour is prohibitively expensive, $40 for 25 pounds. So Belay makes his injera (traditionally served cold, by the way) from a 50-50 mix of wheat flour and teff, resulting in the gigantic crepes that come lining the bottom of your metallic serving basin or folded up like napkins on a separate dish.

Ethiopian restaurant menus are dominated by buttery meat or vegetable stews, robustly seasoned with a spice mixture known as berbere that is analogous, if you will, to the masalas used in Indian dishes. Berbere can be red-hot, thanks to a mix of chilies, rue seed, a caraway-like spice called bishop's weed, ginger and, invariably, the Ethiopian national spice, cardamom.

The stews come in rainbow colors. They are laid out on injera; you tear off swatches of the stuff and pick up the meat or vegetables with it ( injera is the only eating utensil provided; there are no forks or spoons at Ras Dashen). I find it a fascinating way to eat, and a highly civilized one at that. Just remember that in polite society, the thumb and forefinger of the right hand should be sufficient to hold your injera- wrapped morsel.

Almost everyone who eats here orders the vegetable combination: three dishes for the price of one, and in three distinct colors to boot. Yemisir kik is pureed split red lentils cooked with one form of berbere. The lentils have a slightly mushy texture compared to Western-style lentils. Kik alicha is made with firmer (and I think tastier) bright yellow split peas flavored with green pepper and onion. Finally, there is yetakilt alicha, a cabbage and potato dish that reminds me of an Indian sabji, except it is both more watery and more complex.

The meats vary even more than the vegetables in terms of complexity and degrees of hotness, and have names that are fun to pronounce: tibs, doro wat and kitfo, among others. This food can be hot enough to bring tears to your eyes, but, astoundingly, it is rarely hot enough for the Ethiopian clientele. All the tables have little shakers of Cayenne pepper (mitmita) for those who want to turn up the thermostat. Most, it seems, are happy to do just that.

No mitmita for me, thank you.

Doro wat is chicken simmered in a rich, grainy, burnished berbere- flavored sauce, and it traditionally includes a hard-boiled egg. On the side is a serving of aib, creamy curds that can cool down the mouth as fast as the chicken heats it up. The hottest dish in the house, zighni, is strips of sauteed lamb or beef in a forebodingly red sauce. Proceed at your own risk.

Should you prefer something mild, try yebeg alicha, made from cubed lamb in a flavorful broth--it's something like a Mexican birria. The dish of choice here seems to be sega tibs, mostly beef, onions and butter in a light spice base. The dish has a slight kick, but it isn't far from something you'd get at a truck stop outside say, Lubbock or Albuquerque (though there you'd be wrapping it all up in a tortilla instead).

Watch out, though, for the drier and considerably spicier awaze tibs. Awaze is a hot paste made from chili, garlic and onion, and you'd better ask for a big bowl of aib if you order this one.

Aib comes with kitfo, my favorite dish at Ras Dashen. The menu describes it as Ethiopian steak tartare, but that description doesn't even begin to do justice. First off, the beef is finely chopped by hand, a step up from the food processor tartare you get in American restaurants (when they're courageous enough to even serve it these days), and second, it is mixed with butter and spices, giving it the color of magnificently stained wood. Kitfo is the raison d'etre for a wonderful small cafe like Ras Dashen, and one of nature's rewards for a truly austere and noble lifestyle.

Ras Dashen is inexpensive. All dishes come with injera and are $5.99.

RAS DASHEN

12549 Harbor Blvd., Garden Grove.

(714) 638-4260.

Open every day, 10 a.m.-11 p.m.

Cash only.

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