From Eating Oklahoma
Ah, Ethiopian food. The very mention of it conjures up images of. . . what, exactly?
I’ll be honest with you, I had no idea what to expect from Ethiopian cuisine before trying it for the first time. A small part of me, maybe the insensitive part, wondered if it might involve scarce portions that left one feeling only barely nourished. Little did I know, Ethiopian is some of the most rich, flavorful, and filling food around.
Queen of Sheba is a well-hidden treat in Northwest Oklahoma City. The location is far enough West that I’m rarely nearby, and almost far enough South that it’s close to being an impulse-homicide zone. But the trek to a less-than-beautiful part of town is well worth it, because once you step inside, you feel like you’re somewhere else entirely.
The first thing you’ll probably notice is the tapestry depicting Haile Selassie, a former emperor (read, “dictator”) of Ethiopia, who I’m told was not the nicest of leaders. As he stares out at the dining room in full military regalia, lending the place an Orwellian charm (or maybe something more like Woody Allen’s “Bananas”), we are greeted by the two visible members of staff, one of whom is the owner. Both are natives of Ethiopia.
Any meals with my friends Shelby and Otis mean eating with a vegetarian and a half, so to begin our meal, we ordered a vegetarian appetizer. Before the food arrives we are brought hot towels, which makes the experience feel more like flying first class than being in sub-Saharan Africa. But the hot towels have a purpose, as after our appetizer we will no longer need utensils.
The appetizer was a crispy fried shell, like phyllo dough, stuffed with a savory, hot filling of lentils. It was tasty and very hot, great for a cold night. A meat-included version of this same dish exists, but the vegetarian had plenty of flavor on its own. As the evening goes on we will find that Ethiopian food, much like Indian, seems to be based around very careful blending of spices. It’s the kind of food that could only be developed through years of trying different combinations, the clear sign of a culture that really cares how their food tastes.
For our entree, we went for the single most diverse plate, what I think of as the Ethiopian “tasting menu,” called the Messob. This is basically 8 different foods served on a large platter of injera. What is injera, you ask? Being completely unaware of its existence before being introduced to Ethiopian food, I found out it’s a spongy flat bread made from teff, a grain indigenous to Ethiopia. And you won’t know what to expect until you try it. It’s soft, almost sticky, almost like uncooked sourdough in its tartness, still fermenting as you eat it. But the taste of the bread is subtle compared to the rest of the dish, and it isn’t meant to be eaten on its own. Yes, the reason for the bread, and the most fun part of Ethiopian cuisine, is that you eat with your hands! Tear off a piece, hold it between two fingers, and start scooping.
So what’s on the Messob (clockwise from top): Salad, potatoes, beef, chickpea, lamb, lentils, sautéed vegetables, and two chicken legs in the center. But listing the main components of the dish completely ignores the unique flavor experiences of each preparation. The starches are soft, heavy, buttery. The meats and lentils are coated in different sauces, all rich in spices but not “spicy,” dark and almost sweet.The vegetables are simple and tasty, and the pretty-standard salad with vinaigrette serves as nice contrast to the savory meats.
I suppose my only word of warning is watch the bread. They give you a whole plate of the stuff, rolled up, and if you eat it with every bite you pick up, you are bound to fill up fast. The three of us ordered the Messob “for two,” and we still couldn’t finish it. You’ll find that this is one of the most satisfying meals in town, and almost all from a single dish, no less.
So you’re probably thinking this place is an exotic luxury, something you’d have every now and then. And while that may be true, based on the overwhelming richness of flavors and sheer amount of food, the price point is shocking. Had we not ordered an appetizer, the meal would have cost under $30. So split three ways, we’re again looking at more than you can eat for about $10 per person. That cuisine from a culture so far from our own could be both available and affordable in our city seems almost too good to be true. But it’s here, unchanged even after traveling halfway across the globe. This was not my first time to enjoy Queen of Sheba, and it certainly won’t be my last. If you don’t think this city has exciting food options, this is the first place you need to try. So until we meet again, my hat’s off to the Queen.
– Queen of Sheba is open for dinner, Tuesday-Saturday til 10 pm.