It was pure serendipity that lured us up Tana's nearly ladder-steep stairway. We'd been heading for a newish "California cuisine" eatery next door, but we found D'Range deserted, another victim of the crib-death pandemic ravaging our young restaurants. Then we noticed the signboard menu of Ethiopian specialties, squinted upward to Tana, and we were instantly borne aloft on wings of appetite.
We found ourselves detached from the raucous Castro scene, in a serene small dining room with clever architecture: A series of gently pointed white arches that look like Middle Eastern adobe (but are actually molded from styrofoam) outline midnight-hued alcoves, each holding a colorful painting or craft object. High above is a vaulting wooden attic-ceiling, also painted black. Through the window we spotted an attractive deck, but still-squalling El Nino kept us indoors.
The owner, who introduced himself as Getu (sorta pronounced GET-tzoo), graciously greeted, seated, and served us. He gave us the atypical choice of separate service, but TJ and I opted for the classic "family style" meal, eaten on and with the thin, spongy, greaseless pancake-bread called injera. As Charles Perry notes in Totally Hot (an out-of-print cookbook we wrote together): "In Ethiopia, everyone eats from a central plate that is covered with injeras before the food is piled on. Those injeras absorb the juices and are the last morsels of the meal. You are also provided with a couple of personal injeras to use as utensils. You tear off a swatch, pick up some food with it, and pop the packet in your mouth."
We chose our two favorites, doro wat ($6.95) and kitfo ($7.95); main courses are served on injera with salad, rice pilaf, yellow lentils, and glazed carrots. A wat is a thick, dark red, moderately spicy stew based on a complex ground-spice mixture called berbere. Doro wat, made with chicken legs, is surely the top-o'-the-wats. Tana's was the best I've had in years -- smooth and rich with a tantalizing sweet undertone, sauce and chicken both perfectly cooked. Getu asked how we liked it. "It's great," I said. "Last few places I tried it, the sauce was a little burned." "We don't make mistakes like that," he laughed. The only thing missing was the hard-boiled egg, which, by custom, is served to guests with the doro wat. Most patrons won't miss it, and I didn't miss it much either -- it's just another texture to bounce off the great sauce.
Kitfo is ultralean chopped beef mixed with a spiced clarified butter and an additional kitfo-specific spice-mix called mitmita. When it's at home, kitfo is served raw -- African "room temperature" keeps the butter liquid and warms the fresh-chopped meat. At local Ethiopian restaurants, you're asked whether you want it raw or lightly cooked. (We opted for "just warm the butter a little.") The meat was juicy, gristle-free sirloin, and its spicing surprised me with unusually strong notes of clove and perhaps cumin -- delicious, but a bit on the Tex-Mex side. Getu mentioned that he also makes an "extra hot" version with a different mitmita, and he brought over spoonfuls of both spice mixtures to taste. The extra-hot blend was only slightly more fiery but more familiar in its balance of flavors. "I'm going to try that one when I come back," I said. I was drinking so-so house wine; Getu brought me a taste of t'ej, Ethiopian honey wine, and a few sips guaranteed the return visit.
Two weeks later we brought along Omnivorous Dave, who'd eaten Ethiopian food just once before and was a little apprehensive. "Naomi took me to a little neighborhood place, and I thought everything was wonderful," Dave told TJ. "But she was grumbling and tearing every dish apart." This time our local weather was balmy and we sat on the balcony. It's nearly all glassed-in, which could keep its miniclimate warm given a running start but two window-slits admit the breezes of 18th Street, and every table has a diverting aerial view of the Castro's perpetual commedia in the street below.
Our host remembered us. We knew, and Getu knew too, that we were already set on the "hot" kitfo and a quaff of t'ej (we chose the half-carafe at $4.25). The latter is among the best I've ever tasted, very light and just slightly sweet. "Even I like this, and I hate mead drinks," said TJ.
We also ordered the "combo plate" ($7.95 for any three entrees except kitfo, or $6.95 each) and the veggie sampler ($6.95 for all four veg entrees, or $6.45 each). All Ethiopian restaurants offer a lot of vegetarian dishes -- not to suit Bay Area preferences but because the Ethiopian branch of Christianity calls for over 200 meatless days a year. Beautifully arrayed, the sampler was an earth-tone rainbow. Brick-red lentils (yemisir wat) were toothsome in the same dark-sweet sauce as doro wat. Next were yellow East Indian dal-type lentils (yekik) in a mild, pleasant sauce. Adjoining were mustard greens (gomen), very smooth and tender but almost unseasoned. "All they say to me," said TJ, "is 'Look at me! I'm green!' " "It's not easy being green," I said. "But I've had more interesting versions -- I think the best had hot pepper and onion." The final segment was beige in color and taste -- bulgur wheat (kinche), the raw material of tabbouleh but minus herbs, oil, lemon ....
For our carnie combo we chose tastier portions of yesiga wat, beef stewed in that same rich red wat-sauce; ye-beg alecha, lamb in a mild, pleasant currylike sauce; and doro t'ibs, tender chunks of chicken breast with strings of fresh, snappy raw onion. You can get the t'ibs sauce mild or spicy. We didn't specify, and default proved, of course, to be the mild -- very gentle indeed, actually just a bland glaze. Next time we'll get the spicy version, which is more typical of t'ibs.
The extra-spicy version of kitfo was everything I'd hoped -- the same top-grade meat seasoned just like Mama makes it. All that was missing was the typical (but not invariable) scattering of cottage cheese atop the meat. That probably evolved because dairy products help neutralize hot pepper extravaganzas; I only noticed the lack when I got home and found myself making a beeline for an antique carton of Bud's French vanilla languishing in back of the freezer. While eating, though, the kitfo's fires were sharp but short-lived. The slash of heat roused our appreciation for the sweet glazed carrot and string bean mixture on the platter -- "A nice relief when you order your food hot," Dave observed. We even welcomed the pile of lettuce in the center, in a light, inconsequential dressing with a hint of mayo. But the heaplet of golden pilaf remained as neglected as a nerd at the prom. "Is rice usual in Ethiopian restaurants?" asked TJ. "Isn't it sort of redundant, given you've already got a starch and a soother with the injera?" I agreed it was both redundant and unusual; Tana was the first to serve it amid the dozen-odd Ethiopian restaurants I've tried.
Tana's Castro-district location influences its food: In a burger-pizza-noodles neighborhood addicted to all-American diner grub, any African flavor seems exquisitely exotic. Given the local tastes, the kitchen is, understandably, a little cautious with the spicing and a little light on "tradition" for patrons who generally don't know the traditions. At the same time, the host/owner is the soul of ambassadorial service -- so if you're an old Ethiopian hand, the kitchen's also ready to accommodate you. Either way, you can rise above the area at the tranquil aerie atop the steep stairway.