Not all eating experiences need to be educational. However, sometimes a dish is so foreign that it needs to be broken down and equated into something familiar. More than a decade ago, I had Ethiopian food for the first time in San Francisco’s Haight district, and it made quite the impact. Once I got over the lack of utensils, what I found was something familiar that I would crave for years to come: perfectly spiced comfort/finger food served family-style.
When I moved to Anaheim, I was happy to find a couple of neighborhood spots that delivered on that same level, with Tana Ethiopian Restaurant & Market being one. Over the past decade, the eclectic set of diners that takes up the 10-table eatery is the only thing that seems to change.
Ordering Ethiopian isn’t difficult, but until you discover your favorite dish, simply order a traditional combo platter. It will come out resembling a Wassily Kandinsky painting, each bit of food like a color study painted with large, concentric brush strokes. Tear off a strip of injera (spongy flatbread), toss it on top of what you want to eat, then deliver the package carefully to your face. If you’re feeling sassy, you should gursha your buddies in the mouth; this is basically the Ethiopian act of feeding your friend or loved one. The bigger the bite, the larger the love.
From what I recall of the San Francisco spot, I had assumed all Ethiopian food was spiced extra-hot; as Matthew Broderick’s character said in Biloxi Blues, “It’s Africa hot.” But the bites at Tana are fairly tame. As with any food-and-drink pairing, sweet beats heat, so be sure to add a bottle of Tej (Ethiopian honey wine) to your order for $20. It’s very similar to your buddy’s homebrew mead but has a bit of structure thanks to the addition of gesho plant, which is indigenous to the region.
Pairing Tej and Ethiopian food isn’t accidental. The wine can bring out flavors of the prominently used berbere spice that don’t pop out on their own. Ginger, clove and chile peppers develop on your palate after each sip, enhancing the overall bite.
If you’re a regular, I’m sure the Ethiopian drink Turbo gets mixed after-hours, as it’s not on the menu. That’s the only logical reason for the bottles of Baro’s Ethiopian gin, Sprite, wine and beer on the bar back wall. In Ethiopia, those four ingredients are mixed in a pitcher and shared among friends to get that sweet-sweet turbo boost. Take a chance and ask for it!
Tana Ethiopian Restaurant & Market, 2622 W. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, (714) 229-1719; tanaethio.com.
Greg Nagel has been writing about beer since 2011, is an avid homebrewer of wine, cider, and beer, is a certified Cicerone Beer Server, a podcaster with the Four Brewers Show, and runs a yearly beer festival called Firkfest. When not writing about, photographing or filming beer, cocktails, and food, he can be found talking trash while playing video games under the name “OCBeer.”