Walking into Zula restaurant can be a bit of a culture shock as well as a history lesson. The shabby exterior belies a narrow restaurant filled with only six or so tables, three of which surrounded by low leather armchairs that look teleported from a 70’s law firm’s office. Reading the special on the white board outside, whole fish with pasta for $6.99, one might think this is a neighborhood red sauce joint. The large containers of dry parmesan standing on every table as well as the oil and vinegar trays sustain the illusion just a moment longer.
Yet Zula is not an Italian restaurant, at least in the conventional sense. Sitting in the heart of 9th street’s “Little Ethiopia,” Zula is one of the few examples of Etrian cuisine in DC. The pasta that is featured prominently on Zula’s menu is not an appeal to American palettes but a legacy of their colonialist past under the Italians. While most of Africa was at one time or another divided up as colonies among the imperial powers of Europe, it was not until the turn of the 20th century that Etria finally won its independence from its Italian overlords. Their legacy however, forever changed Etria’s food and that is why at Zula, you will find pasta with meatballs besides gored gored, kifto, and the eponymous vegetable combination ($7.99).
I chose as always the latter, an all vegan combination of spinach gomen, salad of lettuce, tomatoes and green peppers, yellow split peas, misir wat, and a tikil gomen of cabbage and carrots. While I waited the short five minutes for my order, I mentioned to the waitress that I liked my food spicy. When she brought out my platter she also gave me a small dipping bowl of ground Etrian mustard that was perhaps the strongest I have ever tasted. Pleasingly hot but too overpowering to be used in combination with any of vegetable dishes. The first dish I tried was the lettuce/tomato/pepper salad. I had expected this to come dressed but it was completely unadorned and chopped into large pieces that were extremely unwieldy with the injera. Thankfully the table vinaigrette was palatable but no amount of dressing made it easier to eat large chunks of romaine and full slices of tomato by hand. The next dish to enter the gullet was the yellow split peas. These were almost room temperature when the platter was brought to my table but the flavor was incredible despite, o r perhaps because of, this. The texture was perfect, just pureed smooth but still with some body and flecked with bits of jalapeño and sautéed green pepper. This was the best preparation I have ever had. The spinach gomen was also a new, albeit still traditional, take on the familiar collard green gomen. The spinach was well cooked, flavorful, and full of visible garlic which gave the dish a bit of added complexity and bite. It was good enough for me to order another side of it ($1.99); personally I would much rather they do away with the salad and just present an extra portion of this. Moving on, I tried the misir wat. These were great with a very balanced, savory flavor that didn’t emphasize any one component of the berbere mixture but was instead a pleasant harmony on the tongue. The only thing I would have liked was perhaps a little spiciness but that is a personal preference. Last on the menu was the cabbage and carrots. The cabbage and carrots had been thankfully cooked well, tender but not mushy, with a subtle ginger taste that while not the best preparation I’ve had, certainly ranks highly.
Service throughout was very attentive though I was the only patron for the hour and fifteen minutes I spent there. The waitress even brought out a squeeze bottle of what I think is awaze some time later for me to try in addition to the mustard; it spiced up the yellow split peas though again was a bit too one dimensional to meld well. For the price and service, Zula’s is a hidden gem, with food that nears the quality of such staples as Etete’s and Dukem. I can only hope that the rest of the menu of the very short menu is as good and that more people patronize the restaurant before it is forgotten among the many others on the 9th street row.
1933 9th St. NW, Washington DC 20001