As a kid, my idea of adventurous eating was that I went to a deli that served tongue. (I never ate tongue, but the mere presence of it on the menu was enough street cred for me.) Admittedly, I didn’t live somewhere with a whole lot of options – all we had in my town for years was a couple of average Italian restaurants, a pub, and a Friendly’s.
But now, living in the D.C. suburbs, we are absolutely spoiled for choice. D.C. itself has a thriving foodie culture and our suburb has a number of immigrants who have brought their delicious food with them. So I’m dedicated to ensuring Sprout is exposed to all sorts of cuisine. So far, we’ve had Indian, Thai, Lebanese, dim sum, and authentic Chinese dumplings. But last weekend, we went a step more adventurous than we ever had before – Ethiopian.
I never tried Ethiopian until I was an adult, visiting my sister-in-law when she lived in Greenwich Village. Although our experience wasn’t great – the service was awful, which compounded our confusion when they didn’t give us utensils or plates – it piqued my curiosity. Because D.C. has a robust Ethiopian community, we made our way to one of the best-reviewed establishments a few years ago, with far more positive results. Although I had wanted to return since then, we hardly ever go into D.C. just to eat dinner.
I had never thought to look around our area for Ethiopian, but I came across an old Bethesda Magazine listing their “favorite ethnic restaurants” while I was cleaning out the baby’s room. While we were familiar with a number of the restaurants and others had gone out of business, some were totally new to us. One was Sheba, an Ethiopian place in a strip mall that I would have never noticed otherwise. So we picked a low-key Friday and headed over.
Walking in the restaurant, I immediately noticed there were several other families with toddlers there. While most of the staff at mom-and-pop run places have welcomed Sprout, you’re never quite certain until you get there. The next thing I noticed was that it was a nice balance of thematically appropriate decorations – lots of paintings of the Queen of Sheba – while still having a comfortable, low-key feeling. When you have a small person in tow, a lack of white tablecloths is welcome.
Looking over the menu, we noticed that at least 4/5 of the dishes had little peppers next to them, indicating they were especially spicy. As none of us are fiends for heat, we stuck to the few non-pepper dishes. Chris ordered lamb, while Sprout and I were going to split a chickpea dish. Sprout really likes chickpeas, so I figured it would be a good hook.
If you’ve never been to an Ethiopian restaurant, the presentation is rather unique. The server brings out a platter with a giant sheet of thin, spongy bread (injera) on it. The dishes are either on the bread already or the server ladles them onto it from tureens. To eat, you rip off pieces of the bread and use it to pick up the entrees.
We used the presentation as a major hook to convince Sprout it was a good idea to come to this restaurant. When we told him that they don’t even give you forks, his eyes went really wide. As we’re constantly reminding him to eat with his fork instead of his hands, a place where they don’t even give you one seemed like heaven.
Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out as expected. The server brought out the big plate with Chris’s food on it and a side of extra injera. During the few minutes it took for her to bring ours out, Sprout eyed the plate cautiously. When she finally arrived with the chickpeas, I scooped some onto one piece of bread for Sprout and one piece for me.
Putting it in my mouth, I realized I made a terrible mistake. It was on the highest end of what my palate could tolerate spice-wise, much less Sprout’s. Admittedly, I should have come to this realization a few minutes earlier when the waitress said, “Oh, those jalapeños are just for color, not taste.” Like the narrator realizing what those “little green things” are in Dragons Love Tacos, I immediately understood that jalapeño peppers were not going to fly in this circumstance. Almost immediately, Sprout made a face, put down his injera, and pushed his plate away.
Fortunately, there were actually two chickpea dishes, the second one being a side dish that was actually mild. Instead of the chickpea entree, which was blended down, it had whole chickpeas in it, making it more recognizable. Because he still looked willing to try it, I gave Sprout all of that side dish and ordered a second one for him as well. (Very kindly, they gave it to us for free.) Despite the appeal of dipping, he was convinced the injera was spicy and refused to try it again. So even though we had advertised the restaurant as utensil-free, he ended up eating his food with a fork. Whatever works.
It didn’t work out quite as I hoped, but I’m glad that we introduced Sprout to yet another cuisine. As much as he loves grilled cheese, I’m glad his palate goes beyond it and that this feeling of exploration continues throughout his life.