A t first glance: The room at Harar Mesob in Crystal City is fairly plain, with a few Ethiopian prints and musical instruments on the walls and one row of traditional Ethiopian tables and narrow-backed chairs down the center of the dining room. (“Mesob” is the name for those woven hourglass-shaped tables; Harar is the fourth holiest city in Islam, famous for its coffee and its scores of mosques.)
At the table: The injera, the crepe-like bread/plate/fork with which you pinch your food, is about half buckwheat flour and half tef. (One of the staff says that tef, the tiny millet-like grain of Ethiopia, doesn’t entirely agree with the local water.) In any case, it’s fresh, moist and pocked with punctured fermentation bubbles.
The spicy minced-meat kitfo is unusually good, very lean and extremely generous, perhaps as much as half a pound. You can order it “plain,” which is already mixed with mitmita (a fine chili-cardamom powder) and niter kibbeh (clarified spiced butter); flavored with jalapeÂ¿os and onions; or mixed with the jalapeÂ¿os and onions plus the collards and yogurt-like “cottage cheese” that come as sides with the other versions. You also have the option of having the meat raw, rare or cooked. Gored gored, which is a sort of coarser kitfo, cubed rather than minced, also comes cooked to order.
More complex than mitmita is berbere (sun-dried red chilies finely ground and blended to taste with garlic, allspice, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, basil and cardamom). Blend berbere with tej (herbed honey wine), red wine or other liquid and you have awaze. Alicha beef comes in a mild sauce of garlic and ginger; its spicier cousin is awaze tips, cubed beef or lamb in a stew of sauteed onions and jalapeÂ¿os. Yedoro wot, the moderately spicy chicken stew with hard-boiled egg that is the unofficial national dish, comes in an unusually rich and smooth sauce of long-simmered minced onions and berbere.
The vegetables (collards, cabbage with carrots, potatoes, yellow and red lentils) are fairly plain, except for the moderately spicy red lentils, but hot sauce is supplied to amend that. Instead of the more common salad, Harar Mesob serves only lightly dressed chopped tomatoes, a nice palate cleanser.
Ethiopia and Eritrea have historic (not always friendly) ties with Italy, and the menu includes several pasta and rice dishes. Harar Mesob also serves breakfast, including such traditional dishes as kinche, a spicy crushed-wheat hot cereal; foul, spiced fava beans with tomatoes and yogurt; and fir fir, torn injera with spiced niter kebbeh (sort of an Ethiopian bread pudding). It also offers scrambled eggs with an Ethiopian dose of jalapeÂ¿os.
At your service: The staff is small but pleasant and informative.
What to avoid: Parking next door in the tow-away lot; there’s free parking behind the place and metered street parking until 6.
Wet your whistle: Harar Mesob’s full-service bar offers a few Ethiopian wines (try Gouder, a light, dry red) and tej by the glass. On Sundays, the staff makes traditional coffee, skillet-roasting beans, then grinding and boiling them, for $10. The rest of the time the coffee is made from Ethiopian beans but in an espresso maker.
Harar Mesob 542 S. 23rd St., Crystal City (Metro: Crystal City) Phone:703-553-5500 Hours:9 to midnight daily Prices: Entrees $8.95-$13.95 Wheelchair access: Not accessible Harar Mesob 542 S. 23rd St., Crystal City (Metro: Crystal City) Phone:703-553-5500 Hours:9 to midnight daily Prices: Entrees $8.95-$13.95 Wheelchair access: Not accessible