Photo by Lisa HartIt doesn't matter whether you're white, Latino, Asian or even black: when you enter Merhaba Restaurant in Anaheim, all conversations pause as every face in the room immediately tracks you like a periscope. "Yes?" someone eventually demands as you nervously sputter and gesticulate that you want dinner. Suddenly, a jovial woman shuffles from the kitchen and lets the regulars know with a grin and a wave of the hand that she's glad to see you. The rubber band of tension relaxes.
Forgive the clientele at Merhaba for their unease: they're not used to visiting eaters. The low-ceilinged eatery is bustling throughout the day, to be sure, but it's mostly Ethiopian, Somali and Eritrean immigrants stepping in for a coffee and nostalgia. Their melancholy quickly disappears under an assault of bass explosions from the car-stereo shop a couple of doors over and the chattering Ethiopian soap operas or Amharic-dubbed Grammy rebroadcasts that flicker on a television screen.
You're probably the second non-African to visit Merhaba after me, so the female owner will be extra attentive and repeatedly ask if you enjoy her East African recipes. You will. The base for every dish here is injera, a slightly sour flatbread from which you tear slices to use as an all-purpose eating utensil. Fingers messy afterward? Sop them up with another injera bit. Injera is the kitchen of the unleavened kingdom.
Actual meals at Merhaba are like landscapes, multiple-spiced spreads of meats and vegetables with an aroma so sultry the men who once eyed you warily will smile with gluttonous desire. East African cuisine sticks mostly to stews: chewy cubes of tibisy beef; lamb ribs battling with furious peppers for control of your tongue; the famous Ethiopian doro wat, spicy chicken cooked in butter, hot like the pits of hell. The vegetarians in your party will content themselves with the shiro, an Eritrean chickpea mush similar to hummus. Though a pot of bun (Ethiopian coffee) is customary after every repast, even better is a glass of tej, a furtive white wine made from fermented honey that dates back to the reign of Sheba.
Merhaba also prepares some entrées that need a little bit of geo-historical context. The extensive and excellent Italian menu—spaghetti, minestrone, pastrami subs, even chicken Bolognese—are remnants of Italy's laughable 1930s grab for empire in the Horn of Africa. But those burritos of minchetabish—ground beef speckled with spinach—melted alongside beans and rice? That's all-American, baby. And they're sabrosos.
MERHABA RESTAURANT, 2801 W. BALL RD., STE. 5, ANAHEIM, (714) 826-8859.
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