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Cheap Eats

Where Eritrea translates to adventure

At Asmara Restaurant, Christin Wang and Andres Glimenakis sit at a mesop, the traditional Eritrean table. At Asmara Restaurant, Christin Wang and Andres Glimenakis sit at a mesop, the traditional Eritrean table. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Jialu Chen
Globe Staff / July 27, 2011

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We always sit at the traditional tables. Others may choose the familiar glass-topped rectangular tables, but I, and whomever I have lured to Asmara Restaurant with the promise of comfortingly mushy fare, always sit at the mesop, the traditional Eritrean table. There, we rest our arms on the mesop’s side and dig our hands into the shallow basin made of woven straw to scoop up chunks of meat and vegetables using strips of injera, Eritrea’s staple bread, while listening to the plucky twangs and throaty voices of that country’s music.

Eritrea shares a cuisine but not a government with Ethiopia. Asmara is its capital, revealing the political sympathies of Lettensa Afeworki, who opened her restaurant in 1986. The recipes here are her own interpretations of traditional Eritrean dishes. She still maintains a presence in the kitchen and the dining room and oversees the sourcing of bebere - a mix of chili peppers, fenugreek, and other less common herbs that gives Eritrean food its distinctive spiciness - directly from the northeast African country.

The first visit can be intimidating, and you need a guide. The waitress will bring you a platter of food so large you wonder how you are going to finish it, with saucy dishes poured over layers of injera. You tear off a piece of injera - a thick fluffy crepe with a sourdough flavor that soaks up sauces - loading it up with a layer of beef and a smattering of lentils with your hands before eating it.

To top your injera, there is fluy tibsy ($15.95), cubes of tenderloin tips sauteed in tomatoes, onions, garlic, and bebere. Or begeeh mloukhiya ($15.95), a lamb stew with meat so tender it falls apart. Both chicken in red pepper sauce ($15.95) and chicken in mild yellow sauce ($15.95) are also delicious.

Asmara’s vegetarian options, which are also all vegan, include bersen ($13.95), sunshine yellow lentils mashed into a thick paste; alitcha ahmilti ($15.95), a vegetable stew with tender carrots, potato, and cauliflower; hamli ($13.95), spinach that is soft and slightly tart; and shuro ($13.95), pureed pepper chickpeas the texture of refried beans.

If you cannot decide what to order, there’s a meat combination ($17.95 per person) that offers a sample of chicken, lamb, beef, and two vegetable dishes; and a vegetable combination ($16.95) with five different dishes.

For adventurous diners, there is kitfo ($16.95), a traditional specialty of slightly cooked ground beef that resembles steak tartare, best enjoyed by those who like raw meat. Or dine on stuffed green peppers ($8.95), which are so hot that everything else tastes bland by contrast.

To pair with the food, order mes, a homemade honey wine ($7.75), sweet and chilled. Instead of the desserts, which are all Italian, try the after-dinner coffee ($3.75), which comes in a small earthen jug cradled in a miniature mesop and poured into espresso cups. It’s very strong and very bitter, but mellowed by the addition of spices. At the end of the meal, the check comes, balanced in a little mesop, the perfect end to an Eritrean adventure.

Jialu Chen can be reached at jchen@globe.com.

ASMARA RESTAURANT

739 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-864-7447, www.asmararestaurantboston.com. MasterCard and Visa. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Appetizers $8.95. Entrees $13.95-$17.95. Desserts $6.95.

Hours Mon-Thu 11:30 a.m.- 3 p.m., 5-10:30 p.m.; Fri 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-11:30 p.m.; Sat 11:30-11:30; Sun 5-10:30 p.m.

Liquor Beer and wine.

May we suggest fluy tibsy (beef), begeeh mloukhiya (lamb), alitcha ahmilti (vegetable stew), bersen (lentils).

Ratings

  • 4 Stars Extraordinary
  • 3 Stars Excellent
  • 2 Stars Good
  • 1 Star Fair
  • No Stars Poor