And, welcome to Round Three of Tengo Hambre! Has anyone seen that new show on MTV, Caged? I need some of those ring girls from ultimate fighting to walk around me (as I sit on my couch with my laptop writing this) holding up those numbers and grinning inanely. If my writing career doesn’t work out, maybe I could become one of them – it doesn’t look like it takes too many IQ points.
Anyways, thanks for coming back, is what I’m trying to say.
This month I decided to check out an Ethiopian place, Altu’s, that’s just off campus, west down Michigan Avenue. Ethiopian is really popular in D.C., and I tried it for the first time when I was there. I loved it, so this month I turned to my trusty Yelp! to try and find somewhere to get it in the East Lansing area. Only two options came up – Altu’s, and weirdly, a place in Ann Arbor (which had 3.5 starts to Altu’s 4, just another way East Lansing owns Ann Arbor), which means there can’t be too many Ethiopian restaurants around if the second closest place is an hour away.
On one hand, I’m glad I can help introduce people to a new kind of cuisine, and one the other WTF Michigan?? Ethiopian is super popular in the bigger cities, and I like to think of Michigan, and especially the college areas, as pretty cultured and diverse. Let’s step it up guys. There’s more than Tex-Mex out there.
Ethiopian food involves a lot of stew-like dishes, usually spicy (but you can almost always order them mild if you prefer), that are served with a spongy, sourdough-ish bread called injera. The injera is used to scoop up the meat and veggies, as Ethiopian food is intended to be eaten with your hands instead of silverware.
Don’t be lame and let this scare you away. Eating with your hands is fun, trendy (see a recent story in the New York Times: http://nyti.ms/xoMADN) and a cool way to try out an element of a traditional culture that you might not be that familiar with. Take a date there, and it will give you something interesting to talk about, or teasingly mock him/her about if they suck at it. Hopefully they won’t since it’s pretty easy, but who knows, maybe your date is motor-skill deficient. And if you’re really set against the eating-with-your-hands thing, you can always ask for silverware – the restaurant is bound to have some for super American Americans like you.
Back to Altu’s. I wasn’t expecting it to measure up to the Ethiopian I’d had in D.C., being nowhere near as popular in Michigan, but it totally did. You guys, it was so good. Which actually makes more sense now that I’ve done a little more research on the place. The owner, Altu Tadesse, was born and raised in Ethiopia, and opened the restaurant when her husband accepted a job at Michigan State. She doesn’t just own the place, she’s in charge of the cooking too, so you can be sure your food will be authentic.
If you want to check out your options before heading over, the menu (with prices – dinner ranges from about $8 to $12, slightly more if you get a bigger plate to share) is available on the restaurant’s website, eatataltus.com. I got a combo with spicy chicken stew and garlic lentils and OMG LOL as my dad would say (he doesn’t understand popular acronyms). First off, all the meals come with salad, cabbage and of course injera bread, in addition to the main dishes. If you like, you can have rice instead of the bread, or do half-rice, half-bread (which I did just so I could report back to you guys on the best choice).
The salad, although it was just a small amount, a basically just lettuce and tomato with a vinagrette dressing, was super fresh and very good. I wished I had had twice as much. As for the cabbage, usually I’m not fan, but I actually like what was served with my meal. It was buttery and flavorful, but not super cabbage-y if that makes sense. Still, it wasn’t my favorite part of the meal. My friend who came with me loved it though, and in her words, “I’m not a cabbage girl.” Put that on a bumper sticker.
On to the main dishes. My chicken was delicious – pretty much exactly what I had expected from my prior experiences
with Ethiopian food. It was tender and spicy (but not like Tabasco spicy, more like a slow-growing, lasts-for-an-hour-after-the-meal kind of spicy) and went really well with the slightly sour injera bread. There’s a spice mixture used in a lot of Ethiopian cooking called berbere that was used on the chicken and you’ll probably run into if you try Ethiopian food anywhere – it’s a combination of chili powder, garlic, pepper, dried basil and other, less-known spices like rue, korarima and fenugreek. It’s so ubiquitous, that instead of salt and pepper shakers on the table, there was one shaker filled with salt, and one filled with berbere.
My lentils were good, but not as flavorful as the chicken. I expected a strong garlic taste, but it was much more subtle, and almost hard to detect when combined with the injera, which has its own flavor. If you’re going for a vegetarian dish, I would suggest going with the half-rice, half-bread option. The blander rice allows you to taste the veggie dishes better, but the definitely try the bread – it’s traditional and interesting and like I said, fun to eat with.
My friend went for the vegetarian combo, which is a really nice option because you can choose any four of the veggie options, which gives you a chance to try a variety of things. She went with the spicy lentils, the whole white peas and potatoes, the spicy ground peas with greens and the chickpea sauce. She said the spice lentils and spicy ground peas with greens kind of ran together since they both were flavored with the berbere, and that her favorite was the white peas with potatoes which she said were slightly sweeter, with an almost squash-like texture and taste. The chickpea sauce, she said, was a little bland, but went the best with the injera. I tried all of her dishes (and ate the leftovers today) and my favorite was the spicy ground peas with greens, which were spicy and flavorful, with a little more texture than the white peas or chickpeas.
On Saturday nights at Altu’s they have live music, which was cool, but a little annoying when it got loud enough to make our conversation difficult. Also, we were slightly confused because the band was definitely bluegrass-y, when we would have expected something African or at least not so…American. But they were good, and obviously local, so it’s kind of cool that Altu’s is giving local musicians a place to play every week. But still. Weird.
My conclusions about this place:
– OMG LOL it’s good
– Great place for vegetarians, lots of the hearty and diverse choices
– Eating with your hands is highly underrated
– I love berbere
– Ethiopian food + bluegrass music = odd, but overall not unpleasant