Minnesota is for carnivores. Steaks, burgers, and brats paired with some kind of bread and some kind of side are staples of our summertime diet. But it's easy to get caught in a rut and tire of the too-familiar options and too-familiar variations. This week we're breaking out of our Midwestern habits and routines and sneaking into the Twin Cities' African culinary scene for a different take on the meat-bread-side combo: Berbere spiced beef, injera, and salad.
Fasika and Blue Nile are two of the best-known Ethiopian restaurants in the Twin Cities. Fasika sits a block off the newly opened Green Line at Snelling and University in St. Paul. Blue Nile is not far off the Blue Line, near Cedar and Franklin. Fasika is a small corner shop; Blue Nile is part nightclub, part bar, and part gracefully aging palace.
Both of these places are Ethiopian, but on its website Blue Nile specifies that it focuses on the culinary heritage of the Oromo, an ethnic group of 30 million or so in East Africa. Claiming its own niche, Fasika emphasizes the healthy aspects of its dishes. And if you're not one for animal protein, vegetarians and meat eaters can share a table and eat like kings at both places. As the first Ethiopian restaurant in Minnesota and the longest-running African restaurant in town, Blue Nile has the edge.
Round 1: The salad
True to its claim, Fasika sends its main course out with a simply dressed side salad of greens and tomatoes. The vinegar and salt offer a sharp contrast to the beef, but not much more. The side of kurumbaa at Blue Nile was far more interesting and satisfying: a lightly stewed mixture of cabbage, potato, carrot, and onion that complements the spicy beef very well.
Round 2: The injera/bideena/bread
Injera, a spongy bread usually made from teff, is a cooked flatbread comparable to Indian dosas or French crepes. Blue Nile calls its bread bideena, but the two dishes are essentially the same. We liked the sourness and firmness of Fasika's bread for its ability to stand up to the rich flavor of the beef. It's also more effective as an eating utensil. So put that silverware aside, fold up that bread, and shovel that food into your face.
Round 3: The beef
Ethiopian wot (or maraka in Oromo) is the kind of crock-pot beef you wish your grandmother made. The Berbere spice mixture at both places comprises a deep and rich variety of flavors and spices, including garlic, ginger, fenugreek, cardamom, chili, and paprika. This mixture is mild enough for Minnesotan palates yet complex enough to break the monotony of the backyard grill. The beef n' berbere at Blue Nile is strangely Midwestern in the way it suggests chili or Sloppy Joes. Fasika's stew (key wot) has large, buttery chunks of beef suspended in their not-too-spicy sauce. They handily win this round.
And the winner is...
Fasika. Though Blue Nile offers live entertainment, interesting cocktails, and some of the best carrot cake in town, the focus of this fight is the beef. And the hearty key wot at Fasika stands out. We're reminded of the old television adage: "Beef: It's wot for dinner."