Karibu Ethiopian Restaurant
Austin welcomes a new Ethiopian restaurant
Reviewed by Mick Vann, Fri., April 3, 2009
Karibu Ethiopian Restaurant1209 E. Seventh, 320-5454
Monday-Wednesday, 11:30am-12mid; Thursday-Saturday, 11:30am-2am
Lunch buffet: Monday-Friday, 11:30-2pm
Culinarily cosmopolitan Austin has a new Ethiopian dining venue, Karibu (pronounced kah-REE-boo, meaning "welcome"). It's situated in relatively spacious digs on the southwest corner of Attayac and East Seventh, in the old De las Casas location, four blocks east of I-35. There is patio dining out front and a section of handsome, traditional woven mesob wicker basket tables in the back, if you're so inclined. The walls are adorned with Ethiopian crafts and art, and the big-screen TV is on silent soccer if there's a game on.
The restaurant is owned by a triumvirate of Solomon and Yodit Kassa (Solomon's wife and head chef), with partner Antenhe Fanta. The Kassas previously owned a restaurant in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, before immigrating to the States 12 years ago. All three are extremely friendly and eager to answer any questions; Yodit is downright cherubic when she stops by the table to see how you're enjoying the food – and enjoy the food we did.
First, a brief primer. Ethiopians eat their food using the national bread, a thin, spongy, slightly sour, fermented flat bread called injera, made from a grain called teff. Picture a thin, sourdough, savory pancake that is a foot across, and you're getting very close. This bread serves as plate (injera are overlapped to line a round tray and then topped with the dishes ordered, served family-style) and utensil (you tear off a piece of injera and grasp your food with it, using the right hand). Most of the dishes are stews (wot) or sautés (tibs), and pork is not eaten for religious reasons (the population is primarily Jewish, Muslim, or Ethiopian Orthodox Christian). Dishes range from quite spicy to mild, and there are plenty of options for vegetarians.
We started with a dish of kitfo ($12.50), a spiced beef tartar made from tenderloin that is seasoned with mitmita (a spice mix of bird pepper, cardamom, ginger, cumin, clove, cinnamon, and salt) and butter infused with garlic and ginger and topped with cottage cheese. The finely minced texture is light and fluffy, and wrapped in some injera, it is delicious. We tried a total of six different vegetables, available in groups of three for $8.95.
The piquant red split peas are a huge hit, seasoned with berbere (a traditional red spice paste of ginger, cardamom, coriander, fenugreek, nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, allspice, paprika, cayenne, onions, and garlic). Brown lentils are rich and savory, while the mash of yellow split peas is the mildest and least spicy of the three legumes. All have different flavor profiles, and all are wonderful. Tikil gomen, a cabbage dish seasoned with carrots, onions, tomatoes, and spices, is surprisingly flavorful. The string beans are richly spiced and addictively good, and a debate raged over whether they, the luscious collard greens, or the red split peas had won the vegetable crown.
The Karibu Combo ($13.50) is a good starting plate for neophytes. You get a portion of the doro wot (a zesty dark-red chicken stew with hardboiled egg, seasoned gleefully with berbere), kay wot (a rich and spicy stew of beef with caramelized red onion, butter, and berbere), and alicha wot (a mild beef stew with flavors faintly suggestive of an Indian curry). The combination of the three works perfectly, with each dish complementing its neighbor.
We also tried the lamb stir fry (yebeg tibbs, $13.50), chunks of lamb tossed with spiced butter, onions, garlic, rosemary, jalapeños, and spice paste (ask for some awaze chile sauce on the side). It could have cooked for a little less time, but the flavors were spot-on. Whatever you do, be sure to ask for a spoon or fork, and eat the sauce-soaked injera that lines the bottom of the serving tray. It is a concentrated canvas of the entire meal.
No meal at Karibu should finish without enjoying a cup of the Ethiopian buna (coffee, $1), made from green Ethiopian yirgacheffe beans which are fresh-roasted in the kitchen. Keep in mind that coffee was discovered by an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi in AD850, when he realized that his goats stayed active all night after feasting on the fruit of the wild coffee bushes. The small cup is delivered on a tray with smoldering incense and is superb. The flavor is floral, round, and smooth with a rich espressolike intensity and nary a trace of bitterness.
Karibu is serving quality Ethiopian cuisine, either from their weekday buffet or from the menu. The folks there could not be any more welcoming, and the food is as delicious as it is exotic.