Sometimes I fall into the best adventures after getting lost. And, food lover that I am, a restaurant discovery usually lies around the next unforeseen bend.
So it was with Awash, a little gem that features both Ethiopian and Somali cuisine.
Hungry for Ethiopian food, I decided to return to the place where a friend recently celebrated his birthday. A patio and an El Cajon Boulevard address came to mind, but I couldn't recall the name. Awash's listing had the street right, and I figured how many Ethiopian restaurants could there be on El Cajon Boulevard?
When I picked up the phone and asked for a table on the patio, I reached a slightly confused waiter who asked, "What restaurant are you calling?" Confidently I answered, "Awash." But after a drive down El Cajon Boulevard that went from lengthy to lost, I realized that this was not the same bustling restaurant I'd remembered.
Instead of a corridor leading to a patio, our party entered a series of whitewashed rooms covered with African art. Carved gazelles and giraffes posed gracefully atop dividers that separated the tables along the left wall, giving a booth effect. But the most fascinating contribution to the décor came from several massive agave flower stalks supporting ropes of white gourds -- all suspended from the ceiling by rough hanks of straw.
Despite the profusion of artifacts, music provides the main ambiance here. Driving drum rhythms, flute trills, cutting guitar riffs and plaintive vocals on disc after disc add up to a fascinating survey of contemporary African music. Because the restaurant was fairly empty at the early hour of 6:30 p.m., the waiter gave us personal attention, writing down the name of a recording artist we particularly fancied: Ali Farka Touré, a Malian with a bluesy guitar style reminiscent of John Lee Hooker or Lightnin' Hopkins.
The menu's easy to navigate: one side's devoted to Ethiopian food; the other lists Somali dishes. Right away we spied the Sambusas, traditional Somali pastries stuffed with various fillings: lentils, beef, chicken, cream cheese, spinach or potatoes. At 75 cents apiece, we tried one of each, served with a blistering chili-garlic sauce and some ranch dressing.
We adore Ethiopian food and still lament the passing of a Pacific Beach restaurant that was convenient as well as delicious. Because we were somewhat familiar with that cuisine, but knew nothing about Somali food, we asked for a combination of dishes from each country. For about $15, Awash will serve you a platter sampling the best of both worlds, and generous enough to feed two or even three -- depending on how many sambusas you order.
Both cuisines feature stews and various meats served atop a staple starch. But that's where the similarity ends. For the Ethiopians, that staple is injera, a sourdough pancake made from a super-nutritious grain called teff. The Somalis consider rice as their main staple, and consequently, the food has an almost Arabic (think Gulf rather than Levant) look and taste. However, Somalia was once colonized by Italy, so spaghetti noodles also feature prominently on the menu.
The food was delicious, but my favorite dish was the simple Somali rice: a fluffy basmati flavored with cardamom and topped with a most savory tomato-based carrot sauce. Try a bite after each sample of lamb, beef or vegetable stew. Ordering the Ethiopian/Somali combination brings a bonus: The entire platter's lined with the injera pancake. After scooping up the various stews with a "wrap" of injera torn from one of the rolled up pancakes served alongside, your hungry fingers reach the juicy, stew-soaked pancake. Yum. Save plenty of room to eat this flavorful bottom 'plate.'
Ethiopian restaurants traditionally serve Tej, a honey wine that's unforgettable. Most offer an assortment of Ethiopian beers, as well. Awash caters to a fairly non-drinking clientele, however, so you'll need to order a beer at "The Last Call" bar next door. Adding to the cultural mix, we found a German-style Texan beer, Shinerbock, went very well with the spicy food. On another visit, we made an even more dramatic discovery: Awash's Somali Iced Tea ($2), infused with cinnamon, honey, mint and cardamom. If you're not going to fill up too easily, order the mango smoothie ($2.50) for a rich and creamy treat.
With fish, chicken, vegetarian combos and even a curry left to explore, and much more African music to discover, it's a bet that we'll return to Awash.
- City: San Diego, CA 92115
- Phone: (619) 583-9225
- Name: Awash Ethiopian and Somalian Restaurant
- Address: 4979 El Cajon Blvd.