This is the last in my series of Ethiopian restaurant reviews for the DC and Silver Spring area. These and a few others will form the basis for a new blog I'm creating for vegan restaurant reviews. I'm also working on a list in the same vein of Tyler's guide for the local Ethiopian scene.
Ever since I started cultivating my love for ethnic cuisine, I’ve been on the lookout for the undiscovered gem, the kind of place one might share with friends, close friends that is, and brag smugly about to others. I had a vision in my head of what it would be like: a rundown exterior with a relatively clean and inviting interior, patronized by a large local community and run by a small family all of whom were involved in the restaurant operations. Those kind of places exist but as I have eaten I have found the image to be the rare exception rather than the rule.
Omo restaurant is that exception or at least the closest to my idyllic vision. Located down Sligo Avenue in Silver Spring, Maryland, the restaurant sits next to a small natural food store and tire repair shop. Besides some African text on the sign there is little to indicate what type of food the restaurant serves or even if it is open for business. The closed metal shades hide what is a well adorned interior, a moderately sized one floor dining room with a large bar along the left wall that stretches back nearly the length of the room. Upon walking in I was greeted by two female servers, one who might have been the elderly grandmother and perhaps her daughter, who seated me quickly and brought the menu. The tvs were as typical tuned to the latest soccer match and Ethiopian music blared from speakers, drowning out most of the ambient conversation from the bar. Omo offers three vegetarian combinations for $7.99, $8.99, and $9.99 respectively. Feeling adventurous I went the third option which was despite what the menu indicated still only $7.99.
Sitting back I admired the large tables and comfortable chairs that graced the entrance to the restaurant while I waited for my dinner. Almost ten minutes later, the older waitress brought out my platter. I immediately tucked into the gomen, visibly resplendent with minced garlic. Although somewhat tepid, the flavor was incredible. Not oily in the slightest, the collard greens were tender, flavorful, and even savory. The garlic was subtle but added significantly to the overall flavor. I couldn’t get enough of it and later asked for some more which the younger waitress quickly brought out gratis. Next was the salad of tomatoes, lettuce, red onion, and jalapeño. This was probably the best preparation of this type of salad that I’ve had, or at least one of the few that had been created by someone who had at least once attempted to eat it with injera. The ingredients were chopped sufficiently small to make eating it quite easy; the dressing was tangy and applied in the perfect proportion to dress not drench the fresh tomatoes and lettuce. The next dish I had been looking forward to as I had not ever seen it before on an Ethiopian menu. It consisted of a very large jalapeño pepper stuffed with could be described as a tomato relish/confit. Throwing caution to the wind I ate a large section of the jalapeño that had been cut out of it to allow direct access to the stuffing. While the inner membrane had been cut out the heat was still overwhelming and I was quickly reaching for the water. The tomato stuffing was quite good by itself, infused with the jalapeño flavor without being excessively spicy and obviously made from fresh tomatoes and onions. Moving on was another dish I have rarely seen before. Unfortunately I have yet to find an accurate description or name for it but Omo’s preparation consisted of a dark, mole like sauce a tad spicier than berbere with a deeper flavor, which adorned little chunks of ground chickpea balls. The best analogy I can find would be falafel but these balls do not seem fried and the mixture seems to have peanuts as well. I have had this dish before at Dukem during their Lenten season and found it disappointing, albeit interesting, as the chickpea/nut balls had a dry texture and the sauce was too one dimensional for my tastes. Omo’s was a great balance of flavors, just hot enough to provoke sweat after prolonged eating but without overshadowing the other flavors in the sauce. The balls themselves were also much improved over Dukem’s perhaps owing to the relative smaller size. Next up was a dish of green beans, carrots, potato, and cabbage with a bit of jalapeno thrown in for good measure. Each of the components was cooked to ideal tenderness, something of a feat given that the potato chunks were significantly larger than the carrots or green beans. The vegetables had been stewed in something like a tomato/ginger sauce and while a just a tad dry, managed to convey that subtle flavor on the palette. Last but certainly not least was the misir wat. I think I have found, for now at least, my ideal preparation of this Ethiopian standard. Savory and balanced, the lentils melted on the tongue without being mushy. The background heat was enough to be noticeable but did not ever detract from the dish; it rose and plateaued at a comfortable level that only heightened the experience.
Throughout my meal the restaurant remained largely unoccupied with the rest of the patrons sitting at the bar and conversing with the wait staff. I noticed one man who seemed to eye me from time to time as he talked to the waitresses. After paying and thanking the waitresses for a delicious meal, this same man called out to me in the parking lot. His name was Omar(or perhaps Oman, I had a hard time with his pronunciation) and as I later learned, he owns Omo Bar and Restaurant. He asked if I had enjoyed the food and was especially concerned that if I found it appetizing as a vegetarian. After assuring him that I thought the food was on par, if not the best in the DC area, and talking about my life in DC, he encouraged me to come back any time in the future, a friend of the house. It might take me awhile until I can get out to the Silver Spring area again, but I know where I’ll be heading for lunch or dinner with friends and acquaintances in tow. Omo in my opinion executes the vegetarian dishes it serves (all vegan by the way) better than any other Ethiopian restaurant I have visited in the DC or Maryland area at a lower price than Etete or Dukem who I would rate as second. The only drawback is that it only offers a limited number of vegetarian options compared to the 14 course feasts one can order during the Lenten season at Dukem. Still I’d much rather have a few dishes done well than ten or more of middling quality.
Omo Bar and Restaurant
621 Sligo Avenue, Silver Spring, MD 20910
(301)562-7001 (carryout available)