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Dine the Valley

Cafe Lalibela Makes Ethiopian Accessible


What the general public might not know about this food-reviewing passion of mine is that there’s a food critic behind the food critic. His name is Andy, and he’s my boyfriend.

Andy loves to cook, and he’s darn good at it. Our dynamic really works—he cooks and I eat. He usually prefers to stay in, but I’m able to lure him out of the house once a month with the promise of a free meal.

I have to admit that Ethiopian food was a bit out of my comfort zone, but I quite like getting out of there every once in a while. Andy, however, is usually a bit more hesitant when it comes to ethnic food, but I heard some buzz about Cafe Lalibela, so I decided we should check it out.

“Is it going to be gross?” he asked.

“I don’t know. Probably not.”

He agreed to go, and so did a good friend of mine—a cook at one of the Valley’s most revered bistros. So basically I had two extra food critics in tow this month. I’m not sure if that’s a blessing or a curse considering none of us have had Ethiopian food before, and yeah, we were all worried about it being “gross.”

It was a windy, drizzly night when we arrived at Cafe Lalibela, a teeny tiny hole-in-the-wall on the corner of University and Hardy drives.

We were greeted warmly by the host, who wound up being our lovely and attentive server. We cracked the menu with anxiousness and anticipation, only to be greeted by a selection of words we didn’t even know how to pronounce, let alone know how to choose. Luckily, each selection was accompanied by a number and a short description.

Spicy beef sounded safe, so I ordered the yawaze yebere tibs. The tender beef tibs were served with sliced bell peppers in a vinegary, spicy sauce. There was a certain flavor I couldn’t pinpoint which almost tasted like black pepper without the bite, but my dish was tasty, if not a little one note. It was heavy on the vinegar and probably could have benefitted from a dash of sweetness.

Most of Cafe Lalibela’s combination plates are served on top of injera, a crepe-like bread that’s sort of light, fluffy and rubbery at the same time. I’m not sure if it’s because our tastes aren’t accustomed to the sourdough flavor, but it just wasn’t for me. However, it must be a big hit with diners because they served each plate with an extra side of injera. Just a couple bites were enough for me, though, thanks.

Luckily my two dining companions got dishes that were less-than-gross. My friend ordered the chef’s favorite combination and Andy ordered the meat combination.

The chef’s favorite came with delicious collard greens (“gomen”), spicy chicken stew (“doro wat”) and a crumbly cheese that resembled a more subdued feta (“ayeb”). I’d suggest this plate for less adventurous taste buds. The collard greens tasted like they were cooked in the traditional southern method and chopped, while the doro wat was savory and spicy, but nothing unusual.

The meat combination was served with the same doro wat, a mild beef stew (“alicha sega wat”), and a red pepper beef (“key sega wat”). There were subtle distinctions between each of the stews, but for the most part, they were very similar, but the alicha sega wat was by far my favorite of the night, but I’m a sucker for turmeric.

So was it gross? Nah. Am I dying to head back there anytime soon? Also, nah. But it was a nice night for opening minds, so if you’re looking to try something out of the ordinary, Cafe Lalibela is your place. It’s one of only two Ethiopian restaurants in the Valley, so take a walk on the wild side and give it a try.

Café Lalibela
849 W. University Dr.
Tempe, AZ 85281
(480) 829-1939