Zeni Cafe offers up a filling Ethiopian breakfast

Scrambled eggs with firfir and combination at Zeni Cafe. Photo by Maura Callahan.

This city boasts quality Ethiopian cuisine, but if you ask me, there are too few places to get it. There’s Dukem in Mount Vernon, and Tabor and Jano Bar & Lounge downtown. Ebenezer is moving from its spot on Washington Boulevard in Pigtown a few blocks up on Pratt Street. That’s pretty much it. This dearth is no good for people like me who, for whatever reason, experience near-violent cravings for Ethiopian cuisine’s deep, distinctive flavors—over the past year I’ve been toying with my own recipes using berbere spice and other ingredients from Kana Market next to Tabor, but unsurprisingly, great Ethiopian food takes the expertise of those who are brought up in the tradition and cuisine.

But now, we can add one more to the lineup of Ethiopian restaurants in Baltimore. Zeni Cafe (316 Park Ave., [410] 244-0350) opened over the summer, and is located just a few doors down from Tabor, but it’s not the same deal. At the tiny storefront, you can grab a cup of super-dark Ethiopian coffee ($2) and go, or sit down for a traditional Ethiopian morning meal—“Qurs” in Amharic, the country’s state language—which, during my Saturday morning visit, also meant watching a televised football match between Manchester United and Brighton and Hove Albion (Manchester won 1-0, and the guys crowded into the cafe just to watch seemed pretty happy about that). Painted with thick waves of warm brown and buttery yellow that lead to the counter in the back, the walls are adorned with quintessential Euro-American cafe decor plus a couple Ethiopian coffee posters: Elegant women performing the traditional coffee ceremony, jebena (or coffee pot) in hand.

Much smaller than those at Ethiopian spots serving dinner, Zeni’s sit-down menu offers just nine options—vegetables play less of a role in Ethiopian breakfasts, it seems, than they do in the herbivore-pleasing dinners, heavy with a range of stewed and sauteed greens, lentils, peas, and more. I went with the combination item ($13.99), which included injera (spongy, crepe-thin sourdough bread made from teff flour that doubles as a scooping utensil), tibs (chunks of tender beef with onion, fresh tomato, and peppers), and kitfo (minced beef in spices)—all of which are eaten for any meal. My admittedly inexperienced understanding of kitfo was that it’s traditionally served raw, like a tartare; this however was cooked through with touches of pink here and there (I’ll take my meat still kicking, but cool). The tibs were seasoned more sparingly than I’ve previously experienced, and tasted mild next to the richer, spicier kitfo. Both meats were dripping in their juices—you’ll need extra injera to sop it up.

My partner ordered the scrambled eggs with firfir ($8.99)—finely shredded injera mixed with beef and spices, a breakfast staple in Ethiopia also called fitfit (Zeni also offers vegetarian firfir, and the scrambled eggs option can alternatively come with chechebsa, a chopped-up herb bread, instead of firfir). Remarkably flexible and strong, injera comes with most Ethiopian dishes for good reason: Why use a metal spoon or fork when you can eat your food-to-mouth transportation device? Injera is addictive even removed from its function as a utensil, so using injera to scoop up more injera sounded great to me. Even better when it’s soaked with berbere spice, tomato, and meat juices. Served with a light and fluffy eggs, the dish proved to be our favorite, along with the coffee—strong and smooth with a delicate foam film on top.

Without fail, Ethiopian food will fill you up, and breakfast is no exception. Still, had our meal not followed two consecutive Thanksgiving feasts, I might have ordered a few pieces of baklava or a smoothie to go as I checked out at the counter. But this was not that day: As of press time, I am still hurting.

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