The typical rules of restaurant management seem to breakdown within the ethnic enclaves of the country’s great dining cities. In some instances prompt service, or any at all, is about as rare as the meat that finds it way to the tables of eager expats. One of these inversions that culinary adventurers look for, indeed celebrate, are the dreary exteriors and horrible locations that hide diamonds in the rough of gastronomic delight. Looking at Axum Restaurant, I thought I had found my own example of this rare phenomenon; a neighborhood dive with great food for cheap.
Axum ended up delivering on the first two points. Like Zula Restaurant across the street, the cuisine is vaguely Etrian with a token pasta dish, parmesan canisters on the tables and oddly, lots of chicken dishes on the menu. Walking in, past the dilapidated exterior and barred windows, I met a raucous scene of perhaps 15 customers talking excitedly over dinner before shortly retiring to watch what appeared to be Al Jazeera. Like nearly all Ethiopian restaurants, Axum has a long bar spanning most of the narrow restaurant which stretches a fair ways back from its meager front on 9th street.
The menu besides the pasta and chicken featured all the Ethiopian standards and offered vegetarian dishes for 7.95 or the combination for $12.95. When I read the prices I nearly walked out, knowing that I could be guaranteed a great dinner at next door Etete for less. But what’s the fun in that? I placed my order and sat back to try and read the paper while I waited for my meal. It was an unsuccessful attempt with the background noise, a cacophony of loud discussions, music, and television commentary in at least two languages. The interior itself didn’t help matters with sharp angles and a low ceiling; the walls were unadorned though well kept in opposition the exterior. About fifteen minutes later I heard a bell in the kitchen which I correctly interpreted to be my meal.
One of the first things I noticed after the waitress brought out my platter was the inaccurate description of the items on the menu. I frequently find this in Ethiopian restaurants but I suspect it would be disconcerting for the first timer who probably has a hard enough time identifying the dishes for what they ordered, even if the descriptions were accurate. For instance the gomen was described as spinach gomen with peppers. What appeared was a standard, simple collard green gomen that while competently prepared was not spinach, nor adorned with any detectable spice or aromatic. The Fasoli, described as green beans, potatoes, and carrots came out as green beans stewed with a couple small carrot chunks in a tomato based sauce. This preparation is actually one of my favorites and I have had it served cold (Café Lalibela in Tempe, Arizona) and warm at Dukem. Axum’s was quite good, the green beans tasting fresh with a texture that was almost chewy and without an overpowering tomato taste that would indicate the use of tomato paste. The menu didn’t mention the next two dishes I tried, the first being a cabbage and potato dish that was good and uniformly tender. The second dish was cubed sweet potatoes in a spicy, dark sauce that looked like a dark mole. I thought the dish was interesting but ultimately disappointing as the flavors didn’t pair well together. I have had the exact same sauce at Dukem on their Lenten season vegetarian platter where it adorned balls of ground chickpeas (vaguely reminiscent of falafel) and a simple sweet potato dish at Ras Kassas, the only Ethiopian restaurant in Boulder, Colorado. Sweet potatoes can be delicious but they lost their distinctiveness, drowned in the overpowering spicy sauce. Next was the salad: romaine lettuce, tomatoes, and onions dressed in vinaigrette. I have always felt that these salads are out of place on an Ethiopian platter, and in most cases seem to be afterthoughts. Salad or anything similar does not appear in my copy of Exotic Ethiopian Cooking nor in any reference I have read of traditional Ethiopian cooking. Perhaps it is an attempt to bridge the continental divide or another relic, like pasta, of colonial times. In any case, Axum’s rendition suffered from the common problem of not chopping the ingredients, particularly the tomatoes in small enough pieces to make eating it feasible with injera. Last down the gullet were the yellow split peas. These were well cooked, semi puréed with a smooth texture albeit one that solidified a bit as it cooled, getting progressively more thick and clumpy. The injera was decent, slightly thicker than usual and not quite as sour.
Service, while attentive was largely indifferent. I never felt welcome in the restaurant, rather that I was invading a familiar space and causing stress by virtue of my presence. I also had trouble communicating with the wait staff, partially due to the ambient sound, partially due to the language barrier. All that being said they answered all my questions when I was able to clarify my meaning, for instance assuring me that the vegetarian dishes are cooked in oil not spiced butter and are thus vegan.
I’d like to call Axum a diamond in the rough but the prices and service drag down what would have been an above average, perhaps great, dining experience. The food itself was almost as good as Dukem, on par with Zed’s and Queen Makeda’s, also on 9th street. However when there are several restaurants within a block serving comparable food for five or more dollars less, it’s hard to recommend.
1936 9th Street NW, Washington, DC, 202-387-0765
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