Fascinated by the many flavors of our world, I strive to be proactive in consistently tasting international foods as a means to keep my taste buds enthusiastically diversified. My palate welcomes interesting concoctions so long as they are spiced perfectly right, cooked to ideal tenderness and each bite tastes better than the last. Driving down Henderson Avenue in South Tampa, my curiosity is always at an all-time high when I see Queen of Sheba, an Ethiopian restaurant that looks delightfully quirky from it’s exterior.
I have read a handful of rave reviews on the eatery praising its authenticity and rich flavors of stews, 100% vegan slow-cooked veggies and much, much more. Without fail, I’ve mentioned my intentions on dining there almost every week for the last year my boyfriend and I have driven by it. He has often shrugged, uninterested in something that just seems so strange to his always-growing palate (thanks to his foodie girlfriend). Even for me, one who sings her own praise on her sophisticated taste; Ethiopian food was quite the walk out of my comfort zone. Yet, I had to go there.
It was Friday night and the dimly-lit cozy restaurant was moderately busy. A hostess greeted us and sat us within seconds of our arrival. Our server however, was not in a rush to get to her guests. Once she did, she was pleasant enough, smiling and offering very brief explanations on some of the dishes but appeared indifferent to our first dining experience at the establishment. With that said, she did politely point out the no utensil “rule.” Yes, that is correct. When not using their bare hands, Ethiopians use a sponge-like bread called Injera to handle all of their meats, stews and veggies. The Injera comes in a rolled up fashion and can be used like a food “grabber” or “pincher.” It is quite the technical tool. After sopping our hands with the provided sanitizer, we respectfully asked for forks.
As an appetizer, we ordered the Vegetarian Sambussa, a homemade flatbread stuffed with lentils and veggies. For my entrée, I ordered the “Queen’s Eight,” a sampling of eight different meats, stews and veggies chosen by the chef. My boyfriend ordered the Chicken Dullet, a mildly spiced marinated pulled chicken dish. The Sambussa appetizer was golden, flaky and satisfyingly stuffed yet it lacked a certain authentic flair that I rightfully anticipated. It was presented nicely with a colorful bed of fresh crisp veggies to amplify each bite. The stuffed Ethiopian “flatbread” almost reminded me of a savory Greek pastry but without those powerful morsels of flavor dripping from the pastry’s seams. It was enjoyable as a starter but the flavors of the lentils and accompanying veggies were not enough. The supposed garlic was almost non-existent and the herbs were scarce. Still, it was tasty enough-just nothing I’d ever order again.
When our entrees came out, I was childishly excited to see that our meal was covered by a large Ethiopian hat. When the server unveiled the plate, she thankfully identified each item, including my boyfriend’s chicken which was added to my oversized plate. I did not even know where to start. So I began with what I believed would be the least agreeable, the Gomen (collard greens). These greens were no standard southern fare, for they had their own set of rules with flavors that wanted to be remembered. The greens were steamed with a serious kick of garlic.
Next up for my hands was the Atkilit Alecha, a memorable montage of carrots, potatoes and green beans in a beautifully balanced sauce that tasted too rich for vegetables-not that I was complaining. The sauce was spiced with aromatic flavors that officially welcomed me to Ethiopia. These were spices I have tasted before but in no combination like this one. The Ye Kik Alecha, a yellow split pea dish was also arranged in a small pile on my plate. The ginger and turmeric did this dish great justice, once again showing off the Ethiopian cuisine.
Ye Beg Wot was a delicious lamb stew mixture with seasonings strange, but undoubtedly delectable. The lamb was fork (or hand) tender with just the right amount of kick for a spicy food addict. The most interesting creation on my plate was the Doro Wot, a free range chicken (awesome) and hardboiled egg stew. The chicken came bone-in, skin on and was insanely juicy. The hardboiled egg, covered in the rich meaty brown sauce nearly scared me, until I paired it with a bite of the chicken. This unusual, but mouth watering sampling won me over…as it should; it is their national dish. There was also the Chicken Dullet that my boyfriend ordered. It was tasty but nothing overly special. In a very mild sauce, its tenderness barely made up for the sauce, lacking in effort.
There were only a few other samplings interestingly adorned on my plate. The Tibs Wot was succulent beef mixed up in a heavenly red pepper stew and spiced by the Gods. It took over my mouth with its lusciousness. I believe my eyes began narrating every bite. The meat was divine, the stew so rich-I could have eaten only this and plan to with every future visit.
Queen of Sheba is not everyone’s cup of tea. It does not cater to your average Joe. If you are annoyingly picky, please do them a favor and do not go. It is a place for ethnic food enthusiasts, those who are always up for a flavor adventure. It is a place I strongly recommend for its true to culture cuisine and boom of extreme flavor in every bite.