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Thursday, Jan. 24, 2008

Ethiopian Fare

Alem’s authentic cuisine

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Although Ethiopian food isn’t new to Milwaukee, the first restaurant completely devoted to this unique fare didn’t open until last year. Now there is a second place to enjoy these unusual dishes: Alem Ethiopian Village. The restaurant is located in the space once occupied by Antigua, a Latin American cafe now located in West Allis.

The interior, which underwent a much-needed repainting, offers bright and sunny colors. Pictures of Ethiopia and various handicrafts add to the decor. There are a few traditional round tables of woven basketry, though most are glass-topped with simple wooden chairs. Seating is spacious, and a small bar offers honey wine and a few native beers.

One of the first details you’ll notice about the menu is the pricing. No entre is more than $9, whether meat or vegetarian.

The sole appetizer is sambusa ($3.50). These triangular sheets of pastry dough are a variant of the Indian samosa and are filled with a choice of beef or lentils. The beef is slow-cooked and spiced. The vegetarian lentil version is the more interesting selection, with brown lentils, a bit of onion and tricolored chopped peppers. The vegetarian option brings just a hint of spiciness.

The only other starter course is lentil soup ($2-$3). Again the lentils are brown and gently seasoned with onion, ginger and a hint of garlic. Meat and vegetarian dishes are served on a round piece of injera— sponge bread, made from a variety of different flours, that acts as your dining utensil. Simply tear off a piece and pick up some of the item of your choice. Then again, you may want to consider using flatware, as the meat entrees also include samples of two vegetarian items and a small salad of lettuce, onion and tomato in a simple vinaigrette. The thought of wrapping salad with injera might be a little too odd for some diners. Many of the spices used in Ethiopian food are found in East Indian cookery, and spice blends laced with hot peppers are especially favored. They go by the names of berbere, mitmita and awaze. The latter two are extremely hot. My first experience with Ethiopian food more than 20 years ago was one of the spiciest meals that I have ever had. The spicier items on Alem’s menu are duly noted and are in the minority.

Siga keay wot ($7.95) showcases the unique flavors of this cuisine. Pieces of beef are stewed to the point of falling apart. They are in a sauce of berbere that has a spicy warmth, yet shows restraint in the use of chile pepper. The vegetarian sides are all mild. Gomen is collard greens with a touch of garlic (entre $7.50) and yater alitcha is an uninspiring mix of yellow split peas that had obviously been dried. An excellent item is doro wot ($8.55), chicken cooked with the same spice blend. This entre is found on virtually every Ethiopian menu in the country, but this is an especially fine version, simply a leg with the bone and the added bonus of a hard-boiled egg.

It is best to pass on the yebeg tibs. Yebeg is lamb cut in small pieces and sauteed. The yebeg is seasoned with a small serving of hot pepper sauce and even hotter red pepper powder, but nothing can rescue these annoyingly tough pieces of meat.

For an authentic beverage, opt for the honey wine. Ethiopia is not renowned for its beer, and the Hakim stout has a flavor even tarter than the injera! The entire menu is available at lunchtime—the same servings at reduced prices, which makes for an excellent value. Many of the items are slowcooked, but the entrees tend to arrive quickly, making a 30-minute lunch possible. Service is warm and friendly, which helps Alem Ethiopian Village fill a unique Downtown niche: exotic fare at reasonable prices.

ALEM ETHIOPIAN VILLAGE
307 E. Wisconsin Ave. (414) 224-5324 $ Credit Cards: All major Smoke Free Handicap Access: Yes