Restaurant review: Lalibela serves inexpensive but terrific Ethiopian fare in a relaxed tavern setting

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

A dogged commitment to convention is best left to people who lack imagination. That’s not you is it?

If not — and you’re up for a little adventure — how about dining in a restaurant that’s a bit different? I’m talking about a place where dishes and utensils are in short supply, but eating with your hands and playing with your food is expected. Welcome to Lalibela, a lively, open-late and vegetarian-friendly Ethiopian eatery on the East Side.

Past its strip mall entrance, Lalibela presents a large bar and a social-club vibe where beers and darts are popular. Toward the rear of its single long room, where charmingly mismatched cloth-covered tables are located, Lalibela is cute, quaint and quirky in a mom-n-pop way.

There’s also an elevated, stage-like recess adorned with colorful baskets and other festive accoutrements used in Ethiopian coffee ceremonies. When music plays, it’s usually terrific African tunes — and a vast improvement over bar chatter and clinking pool balls.

Though often out of their advertised Ethiopian beer ($4), Lalibela’s domestics ($2) and imports ($3) are inexpensive, and a good partner for its spicy food. Since we’re on an adventure, though, why not try an Ethiopian mead, i.e. honey wine ($4)? It packs a sherry-spiked apple juice flavor, sweetness and punch that pairs well with zesty Ethiopian fare.

Armed with beverages, it’s time to peruse Lalibela’s menu. Unless you’re familiar with this cuisine, it’ll be confusing and filled with exotic-sounding words. Don’t panic, because ordering will be easy.

First of all, Lalibela’s friendly (if not always speedy) servers are experienced with newbies. Secondly, I’ll describe two try-some-highlights combo platters you can simply order by number. However, these “platters” will be eaten as part of your dinner.

This brings us to the all-important injera. It’s a spongy, tangy and fermented sourdough flatbread that’s the cornerstone of many Ethiopian meals. Not only will stew-y, scoop-it-up food be served upon injera, but extra injera will come on the side, rolled-up like Ace Bandages.

The highly recommended “combo platters” are #37 Mahberoch ($15) and #10 Beyaynetu ($8). Both are veritable smorgasbords spooned onto meant-to-be-eaten injera. And both include these long-cooked and deep-flavored vegetable preparations: “yellowish ground peas” that eat like tangy mashed potatoes; tender and buttery collard greens retaining a pleasant hint of their inherent bitterness; beany and spicy smashed red lentils, perky with paprika; a hearty, colcannon-esque stew rife with natural vegetal sweetness and made with potatoes, carrots, cabbage and onions; plus a nice little fresh salad with an Italian-type dressing.

Lalibela’s #10 Beyaynetu (mine included tangy ricotta cheese) is considerably larger, but cheaper than its #37 Mahberoch, because the serves-two Mahberoch comes with a meat “dish.” If you’re with a group (that’s fun here), Lalibela will gladly add meat(s) to your Beyaynetu, or tack-on extra meats to the Mahberoch.

Which meats? Capsaicin fans for whom spice is no object should try Lalibela’s lusty Lamb Dices ($10; like a fiery Mediterranean stew) and terrific Hot/Spicy Chicken ($10; legs and hard-boiled eggs drenched in an incendiary sauce with cooked-to-pulpy onions). Both starred tender meat and were uncommonly delicious.

If you prefer beef but no chili heat, it’s hard to beat the Goden Tibs ($12). Like beef tips seared to intensify their “beefiness,” render off fat and lend an exterior crispness (“tibs” implies saute-fried), they were simple but wonderful.

Lalibela’s “dry-fried” Derek Tibs ($10) presented a similar — if more aromatic — beef treatment and flavor. Unfortunately, mine included occasionally chewy and gristly bits.

Note: Since eating stewy stuff with your hands is messy — and awkward, especially for novices — plates and flatware are available. Before asking for them, though, why not first display your imaginative sense of adventure?

Photos by Meghan Ralston

Lalibela Ethiopian Restaurant

1111 S. Hamilton Rd., East Side

614-235-5355

ethiopiancolumbus.com