(Originally posted at http://mangelorange.wordpress.com/201...)
I’d been to Merhaba before, back when I first moved to Orange County. I’d taken coworkers and we were thoroughly underwhelmed by the neighbourhood, by the decor and the service. The food was not bad but certainly nothing special. I’d had no interest in returning, since Tana is very good, but degustateur raved about it so I thought it might be time for a return visit.
In the intervening three years, they have spruced up the plaza considerably; previously it was hard to tell what was in there. A lick of paint and some improved signage, though oddly Merhaba has no mention on the plaza’s tall list of merchants.
They’ve also cleaned up the inside a lot, which does help with the first impression. What does not help, though, is the TV on absolutely full-blast. A table of men were watching it and kept turning the volume up and up and up. We nearly left just because of that. Toward the end of the meal, they started cleaning the kitchen and an eye-watering smell of cleaning solvent wafted out into the restaurant, so bad that one of the men called out something and apparently asked her to stop cleaning so they (and we) could eat.
The service was exactly how I remember it: you have to call out or ring the bell for service. While I don’t necessarily mind doing it, it’d be nice at least to be greeted by someone other than other customers (who were, it must be said, very friendly).
The food, which was perfectly serviceable in 2007, leaves a lot to be desired. We ordered beef wat (which has a Tigrinya name here, since Merhaba is an Eritrean, not Ethiopian, restaurant) and a vegetarian sampler. I’m not sure if we were treated differently because we’re not African or if the food is normally this way, but apart from the beef there was absolutely no flavour—NO flavour whatsoever—to the food.
I liked their injera, thicker than Tana’s and therefore spongier, but I found it ironic, given degustateur’s comment about the injera at Tana, that it was served slightly cold (definitely not room temperature, especially since it’s 70 degrees out today).
The beef was actually very good; quite tender. I would have preferred a bigger kick of spice (it was a little closer to alecha than wat) but the fact remains that it was smoky and rich without being oily. The portion was very large for $11.00; good value.
The yellow lentils, however, were execrable. They had clearly been cooked in a little butter or oil and a lot of tomato sauce, cooked until they were soft. No discernible spice notes, no texture, no nothing but lentils in tomato sauce. A huge portion—portion sizes are much larger here than at Tana—but not good at all.
Salad was fine; iceberg lettuce and decent tomatoes tossed in bottled Italian dressing, but nobody goes to an East African restaurant for the green salad.
The mixed vegetables were absolutely atrocious and frankly they should have left a big empty space on the injera rather than serve them. They were obviously cooked from frozen (with a stalk of celery thrown in to fool us): water-logged, bland, overcooked and flavourless crinkle-cut carrots, broccoli, green beans and green and red bell peppers. They had been cooked (or frozen) so long that the broccoli was grey.
Spinach was also clearly from frozen, which I could understand if they had only done something—anything—with it. It was completely unseasoned, not even salted. When I sprinkled salt and pepper on it, it tasted exactly like boiled spinach from the packet in the freezer aisle. No hit of spice, no ginger-kissed niter kebbeh, no anything but spinach and water. Certainly no homemade cheese as the menu suggested.
The last dish was stewed cabbage. There was one carrot in a very large portion of cabbage; this at least had some niter kebbeh taste in it, but the cabbage was cooked absolutely to death. It, too, needed salt. Cabbage is never going to be an interesting dish, but good grief, it was slimy.
I went in wanting to order kitfo, but frankly after this we just wanted to leave.
I’m going to assume that degustateur has a vastly different experience as a regular than I had, but it’s very, very unlikely that I would bother returning. Truth be told, if Tana didn’t exist in Anaheim, I’d save my Ethiopian cravings for trips to Fairfax Avenue rather than go to Merhaba. While I’ll concede that the meat was masterfully done, I don’t have much use for an East African restaurant that can’t cook the vegetables so central to the cuisine.
Merhaba East African Restaurant
2801 W. Ball Rd. #5
Anaheim, CA 92804
E A Merhaba Shop & Coffee
2801 W Ball Rd # 5, Anaheim, CA