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African Fortress

Ghion Ethiopian May Look Foreboding, But Food Will Change Your Mind

Ghion Ethiopian International Café

This location is closed

By Susan Fradkin | Posted 12/5/2001

Is it just me, or does everyone think twice before entering an eatery with bars on the windows? There is something unremittingly dreary about the exterior of Ghion Ethiopian International Café (1100 Maryland Ave., [410] 752-3865). It squats like a fortress on the corner of Maryland Avenue and Chase Street, and on a Saturday, devoid of the weekday crowd, this is one lonely stretch of city pavement.

The café is the size of a commodious matchbox, most of it taken up by an L-shaped bar, backed by dull mirrors and shelves sparsely lined with bottles, glasses, and Ethiopian curios. Two tables, with chairs, are crammed into the corner of the L, the only space large enough to accommodate them. Well, almost large enough. C.C. and I wedge ourselves into one of the tables and look around. The man sitting at the far end of the bar--beer bottle in hand, pack of smokes on the counter before him--looks like he walked out for a drink 30 years ago and hasn't gone home since. It's dark, it's smoky, it's damn near claustrophobic, and I'm thinking, Yikes, we invited Chip and Betsy, our newlywed friends, to join us here? They're young; maybe they won't mind the uninviting ambiance. And then the door opens, and in the shaft of sunlight we see their expressions and realize that even the young are apt to find the place gloomy. But suddenly, from somewhere behind the bar, comes a smile that pierces the gloom. Asmamaw Beyene, owner and operator (with wife Maritu), approaches with photocopied menus.

The list of appetizers isn't long. In fact, I'm not sure it qualifies as a "list," being composed of one item: For $3.50, you can get a tasty vegetarian sambusa, a pastry turnover filled with green lentils and a hint of jalapeño. It's a cousin to the Indian samosa and the Greek spinach pie, a humble thing that serves as a snack but eats like a meal. We devour two of them in no time.

Of the five entrées listed, one of them, the vegetarian combo, is unavailable. That's because two of the five vegetable dishes (gomen, a mix of collard greens, onions, and tomatoes, and kek wet, a stew of split peas) are not among today's offerings. After being assured that we'll still get to sample the other vegetable dishes as sides to our main orders, we opt for one of everything. From experience, we know that our meals will arrive together, each serving placed somewhere on the spongy flatbread called injera, which will line a large round tray. And we know that we will each get a basket of injera, which we roll or tear into pieces and use to scoop up the meat and vegetables. You can ask for a fork, but don't. You'll have more fun fumbling.

Each main course costs $9.50. (The vegetarian combo, when available, is a buck less.) Beef figures in two of them. Yes'ga wet is a spiced stew (the most recognizable of the spices being garlic) of lean beef cubes. The flavor is mild, but the meat could be more tender. Yes'ga tibs features the same beef cubes in a more colorful setting: Onions, tomato, and ginger join the garlic in the mix. Our lamb dish, ye'beg tibs, carries the most heat of the meats. In addition to onion and tomato, the stew contains many squares of jalapeño pepper. We fish some of them out and enjoy the lively flavors without the burn.

The real heat to beat turns up in Ghion's poultry selection, yedoro wet. A single drumstick, marinated in berbere sauce, wrings the sweat from Chip's pores. The spice blend includes garlic, fenugreek, cardamom, coriander, and red pepper--lots of red pepper. Betsy doesn't mind the fire, and she's gotten the hang of using the injera, swiping away at the stews as we chat. The rest of us need to concentrate on not ending up with food-stained shirt fronts. To counter the fire of this dish, we turn to the vegetarian offerings on our tray.

Missir, red lentils in the berbere sauce, are mild compared to the chicken. A serving of sliced cabbage with carrots and onions tastes like tekel gomen, except that dish usually features potatoes and a pungent cinnamon, neither of which we detect. More refreshing is the tomato salad with onions and green peppers in a vinaigrette, and the homemade cheese, slightly bitter and very smooth. A hard-cooked egg rounds out the tray.

Now comes the best part of the meal. The injera lining the tray has been soaking up the juices of every dish. Those of us with some capacity left (Betsy and I) pull off small pieces and savor them. Ghion offers no desserts, which is just as well. You'll want to walk off the meal first, or perhaps just the savor the injera-fueled feeling of being pleasantly sated.

Open 2-10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

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