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Local Ethiopian restaurant makes dining hands-on

Café Eritrea D’Afrique spices up your palate. (Stephanie Scerra)

First year Simmone Dyrness and her boyfriend Glenn Contreras enjoyed a new kind of dining at Café Eritrea D’Afrique for her 19th birthday. Located just a block away from the MacArthur BART Station, the Eritrean and Ethiopian restaurant makes for a good night out, birthday or otherwise, with its unique cuisine and customs.

For Contreras, it was love before first bite.

“I like the feel of this place,” Contreras said as he sat down.

Dyrness, too, was excited to try something new.

“I have never had it,” she said. “So I wanted to have a new experience for my birthday to put in the books.”

The history of the food could fill a book on its own. Owner and Chef Zimam Gebreab immigrated to America in 1991 as a refugee of the Ethio-Enitrean War and started working with the previous owners of Cafe Eritrea D’Afrique as a dishwasher. Only four years later, she bought the restaurant and made it her own.

“It’s not like other restaurants,” Gebreab said. “It’s a very small one and a very old one.”

According to its menu, the tradition behind the food is even older than the restaurant. Café Eritrea D’Afrique features cuisine inspired by Saba, the Queen of Sheba who offered a banquet so rich with spices that it enticed King Solomon into developing a relationship with Saba, which led to the birth of Menelik Solomon, rumored to have taken the Ark of Covenant to Ethiopia.

When it comes to spicing things up like the Queen of Sheba in 1000 B.C., Contreras believes Café Eritrea D’Afrique doesn’t disappoint because of the unlimited injera – pancake-like bread made of teff flour it offers customers.

“I feel like this would have way too much flavor without the bread,” Contreras said, while enjoying the chicken dish he shared with Dyrness. “The bread shields the taste a bit.”

Café Eritrea D’Afrique likes to put a lot on your plate, both literally and figuratively. You have to have a taste for adventure to appreciate how messy a meal can be when you eat with your hands.

“This is cool because there is no silverware,” Dyrness said. “It’s the best part.”

The couple had little to complain about at the end of their meal. Dyrness said the worst part was “my stomach not being able to finish it all.”

“You get full because of the bread,” she explained.

For those who will have to foot the bill, Contreras said the prices were “reasonable, but not great.”

For their Doro Alicha, stir-fried chicken breast in mild curry sauce, Contreras paid $11.95, plus tax and tip. Despite his implication that he has eaten more for his buck, Contreras said he would get his own plate next time.

Vegetarians and vegans can take comfort knowing that meat dishes are not all the restaurant offers. Café Eritrea D’Afrique has many combinations, from cabbage and green beans to pita bread and yogurt.

“Everything is organic,” Gebreab said. “We don’t buy from outside.”

While the duo chose not to indulge in any of the restaurant’s drinks, Café Eritrea D’Afrique has a wide variety. Gebreab said the homemade honey wine is the most popular. For those below the drinking age, their drink with flax seeds is a healthy alternative.

“In my country, people with cholesterol only drink flax seeds and eat salads,” Gebreab said.

Ethiopians may be onto something, for flax seeds contain high levels of lignans, which science has shown to lower cholesterol.

Dyrness recommended that Mills women new to Ethiopian cuisine approach the experience with an adventurous spirit.

“Be open minded and don’t be afraid to try new things,” she said.

Café Eritrea D’Afrique is located at 4069 Telegraph Avenue, an easy walk from both the Mills Shuttle and AC Transit stops. The restaurant is open every day but Tuesday from 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. for lunch and dinner.