How would I describe Ethiopian food to a person who has never tried it (beyond saying, "It's delicious")? Well, for those who have yet to try Ethiopian food, let me start by saying that if you like Indian food you will probably like Ethiopian food. That's not to say that it tastes like Indian food, but it is prepared in a similar fashion, in particular — the layering of flavors.
With Indian food, the base layer of flavor is provided by the masala for that particular dish. Then, layers of other spices are added. With Ethiopian food, dishes often start with a spiced clarified butter called niter kibbeh, to which berberé (an Ethiopian spice mix) and other spices are often added. The resulting dishes are rich and deeply flavored, worthy of a place among the leading cuisines of the world.
So how does Aster's measure up? Well, if you had to judge a book by its cover, you would probably drive right past it just as I did for years. It is a humble, unassuming place on the corner of Dean Keaton and IH-35. But don't let that fool you because inside is some of the best food in Austin. In fact, for the last year I've ended up going at least once a month — even though I live about 20 miles north in Cedar Park. It's that good.
So, what did we have? Let's start with Ethiopia's national dish: doro wott. Doro wott is chicken that has been simmered in a sauce made from onion, garlic, and ginger, sautéed in niter kibbeh, to which berbere and other herbs and spices are added. It's served with a hard-boiled egg, which has also been simmered in the sauce. "Why the egg," you may be wondering? I can think of two reasons off the top of my head: 1) It is traditional and 2) Why not? As a big fan hard-boiled eggs reason number two is my favorite. Doro wott is a very spicy and complex dish, one of my favorites.
Next we tried the menchet-abesh. Menchet-abesh is a spicy dish of ground beef, which may sound a bit pedestrian; after all, there are some people who add Hamburger Helper to ground beef and call it good. Rest assured this dish is about as far away from that as day is to night. Menchet-abesh is simmered in berberé sauce along with garlic, ginger, black pepper and other Ethiopian spices. I highly recommend this dish. If you have a low tolerance to spice you might prefer the similar alicha menchet-abesh.
Each dish is served both on and with injera. Injera is a type of sourdough flat bread made from teff, a grain commonly used in Ethiopia that is now being cultivated in parts of the U.S. It has a somewhat spongy texture and a very bright, tangy flavor. Imagine a porous sourdough pancake, perfect for sopping up stew. Please note that injera is also served as the edible utensil, so if you want silverware be sure to ask.
Prices vary depending on whether you show up for lunch or dinner. Lunch is $6.95 for everything unless you go for the buffet (recommended), which is $9.99. The dinner menu starts at $10.95 and caps out at $14.95. At dinner, each meat dish comes with two vegetarian sides, all of which are great. And for our vegetarian friends out there, they also offer a good variety of dishes that don't use meat. But let's face it, the cuter an animal is, usually the tastier it is too.
Aster's is a fantastic restaurant and comes highly recommended.
Restaurant: Aster's Website
Location: 2804 N IH-35, Austin, TX 78705
Austin Food Junkies' Rating: Four Lone Star Points
The Austin Food Junkies are Alex Artibee, Matt Braley, and Dave Braley, "Two guys who love food, and one chef, trained at the Texas Culinary Institute." Check out their reviews of other Austin area restaurants on their blog, Austin Food Junkies.