Habesha Celebrates the Best of Ethiopian Cuisine

Friendly newcomers share Ethiopian food and hospitality

Habesha Restaurant and Bar is the newest addition to the small number of African restaurants in Austin. The grand opening party on January 5th attracted 300 people and now the restaurant is rapidly becoming a popular spot to enjoy flavorful Ethiopian food in a warm, friendly, and authentic atmosphere.

I visited Habesha (the name means Ethiopian) on a Friday night with my husband, Michael, our friend from Nigeria and his wife. Stepping into the restaurant is like visiting the home of an Ethiopian friend. We were greeted at the door by Yidnekachew Fantu, the co-owner and a hostess.

Instead of being seated at a table, we sat on small chairs around the traditional, hourglass shaped, mesob table made out of woven straw. Its circular shape allows several people to eat communally in the traditional Ethiopian way. The woven lid is kept on the mesob until it is time to eat.

We decided to order several plates of food from the extensive menu and share everything. We opted to eat with our right hands using the traditional injera to scoop up our food in the Ethiopian manner instead of using utensils. Injera is a pancake-shaped flat bread made of teff, a special Ethiopian cereal grain. Selam Abebe, the chef, co-owner, and manager of Habesha orders the teff from Idaho. Her recipe for injera uses a combination of teff and oats instead of the traditional wheat flour, yielding a fluffy, gluten-free flat bread with a flavor reminiscent of a faintly sweet sourdough pancake.

Appetizers presented on the mesob (Photo by John Anderson)

To start our evening, the men both had fragrant cups of hot green tea served in elegant glass cups ($2.00). We ladies ordered the delicious, cold, sweet Ethiopian tea ($3.00) and agreed it was the best sweet tea that we’ve ever had. For our appetizers, we ordered the beef sambusa ($3.50 for two portions) and also the vegetarian version ($3.50 for two portions). The sambusas are thin, crisp triangles of fried dough filled with earthy, spicy ground beef. The vegetarian sambusas are stuffed with green lentils seasoned with onions and green pepper. They were a delicious, light starter especially when dipped in the accompanying sauce of ground jalapeños and green bell peppers.

We also ordered the Houmous Fitfit, a cold salad with spiced chickpeas, fresh diced tomatoes, thinly sliced purple onions, and chilies with a dressing of red bell peppers and olive oil combined with shredded injera ($6.95). The injera was a unique, soft, textural addition to the dish and enhanced the crisp vegetables beautifully.

Since we were sharing everything, we debated about whether we wanted to try the beef, chicken, lamb or whole tilapia fish dish or select something from Habesha’s extensive vegetarian menu. The Gomen Watt of chopped collard greens spiced with garlic and peppers ($9.95), and the spicy lentil stew (Missar Wot, $9.95) were tempting. Chef Selam answered our questions about each dish and made suggestions.

I finally decided to order Beg Tibs which are cubes of lamb sauteed with onions, razor-thin slices of jalapeño, and fresh rosemary ($14.95). My friend loves chicken breast, so she selected the Doro Tibs ($11.95). You can have the cubes of chicken breast in the Doro Tibs sauteed with onion, herbs and spices in a spicy or non-spicy sauce. She selected the non-spicy sauce.

Entrees at Habesha (Photo by John Anderson)

My husband ordered the Habesha Special Kitfo ($13.95). It’s truly a special dish of minced, lean beef seasoned with a ground hot pepper called mitmita mixed with spiced butter. The beef is served with a cooling side of seasoned cottage cheese and minced collard greens. Our Nigerian friend was pleased to find that his order of Doro Key Wot was similar to a chicken dish served in his homeland ($13.95). Chicken legs or thighs are marinated in lemon and spices and sauteed in seasoned butter. Then, the chicken is stewed in awaze, a thick, fiery red sauce, along with onions, garlic, ginger root, and cardamon.

The service was a bit slow, something I’ve grown used to when trying a new restaurant. It takes time to get into the flow of things when a staff has only worked together for a few weeks. We looked at the artwork that covers the walls while we waited on our main courses. Several framed pieces of art painted on silk depicting The Church of Saint George in the rocky hills of Lalibela, a city in the Amhara Region of Ethiopia decorate the center of the room. The church was carved from solid piece of red volcanic rock in the 12th century and has been referred to as the "Eighth Wonder of the World.” The tables are also decorated with Ethiopian artwork and all of the decorative, wooden furnishings were ordered from Ethiopia.

When our food arrived, a platter was placed in the mesob and covered with large, over-lapping pieces of injera. Small servings of each dish that we ordered were placed before us, along with 2 large rolls of injera per person. We broke off pieces of the injera and used it as a scoop to sample each dish.

During my first introduction to Ethiopian cuisine years ago, I found the heat and spices far too intense for me to fully enjoy my meal. The food at Habesha was beautifully prepared and well-seasoned and the spice level was perfect. I enjoyed the slow, slight, tingling burst of heat in the back of my mouth. It gave me a chance to savor my food without blowing out my palate.

Because the men at our table had a higher tolerance for spices, our host thoughtfully provided them with a container filled with small dishes of berbere, a powdered Ethiopian spice mix to sprinkle on their food. They were also given a dish of awaze so that they could season the dishes to their preferred heat level. All of the meat, including the chicken breast, was tender and juicy. Although we tried our best, it was impossible to finish the generous portions we were given.

At the conclusion of our meal, the men ordered the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony ($10.00 for 2), the sign of friendship and respect in Ethiopian culture. My husband also ordered the baklava ($4.75) from the dessert menu that also includes tiramisu, cheese cake, and ice cream.

For the coffee ceremony, we moved to the center of the restaurant where several low stools were placed on a raised platform. We gathered around an ornately carved wooden table holding a collection of small, espresso-like coffee cups and saucers. Chef Selam toasted a pan full of green coffee beans until they were black and fragrant.

While the beans were roasting, she explained that her parents owned restaurants in Ethiopia and in America. As the youngest of 15 children, her job was to wait tables and she didn’t start cooking professionally until she was 20 years old. She was drafted for the job one day when the chef didn’t show up for work. She fell in love with preparing traditional Ethiopian dishes and now enjoys sharing her cuisine and culture with her own guests.

When the coffee beans were finished toasting, she ground them, mixed them with water, and placed them in a coffee pot that looks like the ibriks used to make Turkish coffee. During the ceremony, each person is served three cups of the thick, rich coffee along with a bowl of fresh, hot popcorn. No one could tell us how popcorn became a part of the coffee ceremony, but the non-coffee drinkers in our party enjoyed it immensely. The baklava was served with berries. The light, flaky pastry was sweetened with honey, making it the perfect pairing for the rich, unsweetened coffee.

Habesha Restaurant and Bar is a lovely place to spend an evening with friends while exploring mouth-watering Ethiopian dishes in an authentic setting. I can’t wait to indulge in this charming representation of Ethiopia cuisine and hospitality again.

Angela Shelf Medearis, aka the Kitchen Diva (Photo by Anthony Naak)

Habesha Restaurant and Bar

6019 IH 35 N. 358-6839

Monday–Thursday, 11am – 10pm

Friday & Saturday, 11am – Midnight; Sunday,11am-10pm

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