Serious Eats

Bay Area Eats: Café Rehoboth, Ethiopian Food with Heart

"Some people are able to gracefully scoop food up with pieces of injera. I just aim to keep my shirt front clean and to resist licking my fingers."

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Rehoboth Ethiopian Café and Restaurant

655 North Sixth Street, San Jose CA 95130 (map); 408-947-1717; caferehoboth.com
Price: About $15 per person, including tip
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays to Thursdays, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays, noon to 10 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sundays. Closed on Mondays

My friend asked the other day, "Ling, what do you mean when you say 'this food has heart'? I don't understand, how do you taste 'heart' in food?"

It took me a couple of minutes before I could respond—I had been using the term for so long that I no longer consciously thought about it.

In the end, the answer I offered was, at best, a working definition: knowing that my meal was prepared by someone who loves good, wholesome food, who wants to share it, and who goes to great lengths to make it the best it can possibly be, is important to me.

In this awful economy, I understand the need for restaurants to cut corners. But in my mind, a restaurant that serves up food with "heart" will choose to tighten the budget on ambience, not ingredients; fancy flatware, not service; and extraneous items on the menu like branded mineral waters, not quality bread.

At Café Rehoboth in San Jose, California, they splurge on just the right things. It's not in the most picturesque of neighborhoods—located as it is across the road from a vacant lot and next to a couple of boarded-up buildings. The carpet in the restaurant is shabby, and the furniture is humble. But it is bright and clean and, most important, when you step in, you're welcomed like family.

Run by a mother and son duo—she cooks and he serves—the lady of the house, Erkab "Kay" Kifle, greets you at the door, guides you through the menu (if you're unfamiliar with the cuisine), and makes gentle recommendations based on "what you're hungry for."

The ingredients used are "as much as possible" organic. And unlike other Ethiopian restaurants that can be fairly heavy-handed with niter kibbeh—clarified butter that has been infused with spices such as cumin, coriander, cardamon, and nutmeg—Kay strives to be judicious with it, "so that the food is as wholesome and well-balanced as possible." Kay also uses olive oil in place of niter kibbeh in her vegetarian dishes, so vegans can dine easy.

My friends and I have been here several times. We started off with their combination platters, trying as many different dishes as possible before picking out our favorites. So far, despite the fact that I dine with a decidedly omnivorous group (veggie-lovers all), we've tended to lean toward Kay's meat dishes. Perhaps it's because Ethiopian food tends to be stew-based—great for rendering meat marvelously flavorful and tender, not so great for those of us who like a good snap to our greens.

We've never been served anything that wasn't delicious, but we do have a couple of stand-out favorites. One is the doro wot—chicken drumsticks cooked to falling-apart tenderness in a mild berbere sauce. Berbere is a spice mixture of chile peppers, ginger, cloves, coriander, allspice, rue berries, and ajwain, and it infuses the entire dish with an incredible depth of flavor. Another favorite is the yebeg tibs, a sizzling masterpiece of lamb sautéed with onions, garlic, and rosemary. There are two versions—dry or wet—but my group always opts for the wet. To miss out on the mouthwatering gravy it comes in would be a shame.

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Spongy, house-made injera.

The food at Rehoboth arrives on a giant, shared platter, sitting on injera that Kay makes herself. Injera is a spongy, sour, unleavened bread made from teff, which serves as both plate liner and utensil. (Some people are able to gracefully scoop food up with pieces of injera. I just aim to keep my shirt front clean and to resist licking my fingers.) As you can guess, the injera that's at the bottom of the platter soaks up the gorgeous gravies and sauces, and is the best part of the meal.

For greens, our group likes the fosolia, carrots and long beans cooked with onions, garlic, spices, and olive oil, as well as the abesha gommen, collard greens simmered till tender and with just a hint of residual bitterness. All platters come with a simple salad dressed in olive oil and lemon juice, as well as a homemade buttermilk cheese (very similar to cottage cheese) called ayeb.

No matter how busy the kitchen, Kay always comes by to ask how the food is, and if everyone's had enough to eat. Her food is wonderfully even-tempered spice-wise, but those who like it hot should be sure to ask Kay for a side of her Awaze, a chile pepper paste made with Tej (Ethiopian honey wine), ginger, spices, and lemon juice.

The service at Café Rehoboth is sweet and earnest, the food is honest, and I enjoy eating with my hands among friends. The food, admittedly, can take a while to appear—Kay only starts cooking after you've placed your order, and we've faced waits of up to 30 minutes. But you never feel rushed at Rehoboth, so it's an excellent place for catching up with friends.

I'm sure many of us Serious Eaters have had cause to think about why some foods appeal to us more. And food with "heart" will mean, of course, different things to different people. I always walk out of Rehoboth relaxed and with a warm, happy glow in my tummy. For me, that's food with "heart."

About the author: Wan Yan Ling can usually be found in the kitchen procrastinating on "real work" or online tracking down obscure recipes. Ling thinks eating alone is no fun, and she still believes in hand-mixing.

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