Oct 12, 2012
I first became interested in Ethiopian cuisine after attending a cooking demonstration at the Institute of Culinary Education (my alma mater) by Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised, now New York based (an adoptee like me and just as much all over the map) chef Marcus Samuelsson. At the time he was promoting his then most recent cookbook, Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa, which documented his travels all over the continent but especially emphasizing his birthplace of Ethiopia. Unfortunately, I never got to try any of the Ethiopian restaurants in NYC (a very popular one that I would often drive past was coincidentally also called Queen of Sheba). Finally, shortly before our trip to NJ/NY, Terika, the kids, and I made it over to (the Tampa) Queen of Sheba.
Other than trying a new cuisine, part of my interest in Ethiopian cuisine has to do with changes I have been making in my diet (which I sometimes excuse myself from for "R&D", aka Research and Development... going out to eat and tasting food I'm cooking). Due to my newfound interest in Traditional Chinese Medicine and just plain being "sick and tired of being sick and tired", I have drastically reduced the amount of animal products, as well as refined starches/sugars and excessive fat from my diet. Queen of Sheba has both vegetarian (which is said to be all vegan as well) and non-vegetarian food... but even a non-vegetarian meal there contains a much lower percentage of meat than a typical American meal, which is often the case in traditional ethnic meals but not always necessarily reflected in restaurant meals. Even though I considered this meal R&D, it really didn't have to be because I really didn't cheat.
It's worth noting the ambience of this restaurant. Most of the clientele is probably Ethiopian or from a close part of the world. The music and decor is very Ethiopian, and it is somewhat dark and cozy (if a little bit tight). The service was pretty slow, as it took several minutes before we were even given menus. This of course makes one wonder why, considering that stewed dishes obviously cannot be "stewed to order".
I started with an Ethiopian beer, Hakim Stout, which wasn't really a stout. It just wasn't malty and thick enough, and the color really wasn't even that dark. But it wasn't bad either. It's just nothing I'd go beating down doors looking for.
Terika and I shared an appetizer sampler consisting of Ethiopian tomato salad, veggie sambusa filled with lentils, buticha (crushed chickpeas), azifah (crushed lentils), injera (a type of thin pancake made from fermented teff flour which Ethiopians use to eat just about everything since they do not use utensils), and ana-babro (more injera, this time layered which Ethiopian spices). Although I planned on eating mostly vegetarian food, I didn't expect the sampler to be completely vegan (the menu doesn't specify what it includes). The appetizers tasted good but nothing particularly blew me away. The buticha was described to us as being like hummus, and while it contained chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil, it didn't taste much like hummus at all to me. Other than just not containing tahini, texturally it wasn't nearly as pureed as hummus usually is and overall just seemed to be much blander than hummus, but that could have to do with the salt level being fairly tame as it was in just about every dish. I love to try all different ethnic cuisines, but some parts of the world use less salt than others and it's hard for a trained restaurant cook (used to having to adequately season food in order to avoid verbal abuse and possible airborne objects) not to notice. People without food backgrounds may not notice. Generally speaking, you will notice me saying things like "could use a pinch of salt" quite often. That's just the way I was trained. If it's not seasoned enough, it's not as good as it could be.
Terika and I also ordered a combination platter for 2. I'm not sure if I can remember the names of everything, although I know it included doro wat (chicken and hard-boiled egg stewed with spices), ye kik alecha (yellow split peas), tekikl gomen (carrots, cabbage, and other vegetables), atkilit alecha (carrots, potatoes, and string beans), gomen (collard greens), some kind of stewed beef, some kind of chicken and two more which I'm not sure the identity of. I almost wish I had ordered the vegan version because the beef was very chewy, like a cut meant for braising being cooked only to well done and no further, and the chicken was bland and boring (chunks of breast in some kind of barely seasoned yellow sauce). The other stews were all pretty enjoyable, even though some of the flavors took some getting used to even for my adventurous (but still American) palate. Sour flavors show up a lot, which can be pretty pronounced considering the injera is made from fermented flour and is already quite sour. Everyone who knows me knows I'm an acid junkie but I'm talking about more of a funky sour... but not the kind that food takes on when it's off. The injera really grew on me over the course of the meal and I think this kind of food in general could grow on me over time, but I still think it's begging for a little more salt. It's hard to judge Queen of Sheba because I have never been to any other Ethiopian restaurants. I could see myself returning here, but probably just to eat healthier vegetarian food during the week when I feel like neither cooking nor cheating. An exception to that would be to try kitfo, which is Ethiopian steak tartare seasoned with clarified butter and spices. I have always wanted to try that dish (although I did get to try Marcus Samuelsson's version of it), but I passed this time in order to try a large variety of dishes on the combination platter instead. Next time I guess.
3636 Henderson Blvd
Tampa, FL 33609