For the past couple of weeks, a few of the Phoenix metro Chowhounds and I decided to meet face to face and review a restaurant together. After several emails suggesting everything from El Salvadoran to Russian to Chinese, we settled upon Cafe Lalibela, an Ethiopian restaurant at the corner of University and Hardy in Tempe.
Seven of us were confirmed to attend and I didn't know what to expect, either from the restaurant or my fellow Chowhounds. My friend Dave joined us as well. Now, Dave is a very quiet person, but he does dole out some amazing words of wisdom. As we pulled into the parking lot of a strip mall that housed Cafe Lalibela, I warned Dave that I didn't know any of these people except from the Chowhound.com board. "They could be freaks," I said. "Seth, you are meeting a bunch of anonymous people you converse with over the Internet to review a restaurant," he stated. "You are all freaks."
Point for Dave.
So, I entered the restaurant and was directed to a table in the back by the hostess. Sarah and Jamie were already at the table. Dave and I joined them, followed soon after by Gayle and Leanne. We each ordered our drinks and pondered the menus while we waited for the last member of the party to join us. The drinks were varied. Lemonade, Iced Tea, Lite Ethiopian Beer, Mango Juice and a Diet Pepsi. We chatted a bit and then were on the verge of thinking our final guest had second thoughts when JK (The Cosmic Jester) showed up, jester's hat upon his head! JK ordered a glass of white wine and we scoured the menus one last time before ordering.
I inquired from Gayle and Leanne about the beer. They both said it was "interesting" and elaborated that it was good, but different.
Cafe Lalibela is in an interesting space. The layout of the dining room is an 'L.' There is plenty of room between tables and the place is spartanly decorated. It is a very comfortable space and they do get quite a crowd for Friday supper.
Our server arrived to take our orders and I was first out of the gate. I wanted to try a variety of dishes, so I opted for the Manager's Choice ($11.95). Dave had the Spicy Combination ($11.95) as did Jamie. I did not hear which combination Sarah had ordered (sorry!). JK, Gayle, and Leanne decided to get a large combination platter and chose the Lalibela Exclusive ($35.95). All of the combos we ordered were served with Injera, the rubbery, spongey, sourdough bread that is served cold. Also included on the plates was Selata, a lettuce and tomato salad with a light dressing.
In addition to our meals, Gayle, Leanne and I ordered a cup of the Shorba soup ($2.75).
As we waited for our meals, we all chatted about everything from restaurants we want to review to what are our "guilty pleasures" - those places we love but would sacrifice Chowhound points if anyone knew. (I will confess that my guilty pleasure is... Waffle House.)
Our soup was brought fairly quickly. The first thing I noticed was that the broth was heavy on the tomatoes. That wasn't a bad thing. It was very fragrant and the hearty broth was very satisfying. The soup also contained lentils, carrots, potatoes and onions. The downside of my soup was that the vegetables were either finely chopped or simply had been cooked down to remnants. The flavor was very good, but I think I would have preferred a bit more texture to the soup. The upside was that the soup was served hot. That was a big bonus since lukewarm soup seems all the rage.
After a 20-or-so minute wait, our meals arrived. Dave and I were served first. The first scent that hit me was that of cumin. Sarah and Jaime were served next. This was follow by a gigantic round platter being set down for JK, Gayle and Leanne. This was simply huge. There was that uncomfortable giggle due to the sheer volume of food presented on this one platter. Then, I remembered that the menu said something about the family-style platters being for a "minimum of three people." Yes, if they were linemen for the Arizona Cardinals.
All of the various dishes were served atop a large piece of Injera. A small basket of Injera was also provided to each guest at the table. This is done since you are not provided forks at the table. You simply tear off a piece of the bread, grab your dish of choice and savor it all.
I dove into my platter, starting with the Tikl Gomen, a mixture of carrots, potatoes, cabbage and spices. I liked it immediately because the spice did not drown out the taste of the vegetables. Next was the Kye Sega Wat, a spicy beef stew. It contained an excellent amount of meat and was quite spicy. It reminded me of machaca. Lastly, I dipped my injera into the Yekik Alicha, a yellow split pea dish made with onions and tumeric. This was okay. I think it needed an additional spice or two to round out the dish. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't a standout either. The only other thing on my platter was the Selata, which was iceburg lettuce, tomato and some sort of light dressing. It seemed to function as a garnish than anything else because I found it really had no taste and the dressing was weak.
Dave had the Kye Sega Wat on his platter, along with doro wat (a spicy chicken stew) and Misr Wat (semi-spicy red lentils cooked with a red chili powder). He said the chicken stew was good and the spice "snuck up on you." But he seemed to rave about the Misr Wat. Others at the table concurred.
I really enjoyed my food at Cafe Lalibela. However, there were a couple of "rough around the edges" items that stood out.
First, my food was only slightly above room temperature. I know injera is cold. But my dishes needed to have heat, not just spice. This detracted from the meal. My only other complaint was what I considered to be sub-par service. Our server would disappear for long stretches and then emerge with a huge tray of drinks or items for several tables. The problem was that your drinks were never kept filled unless you requested it from your server. With one exception, I was constantly asking for additional iced tea.
I would return to Cafe Lalibela in a heartbeat. The food is quite good, filling and very novel for the Phoenix metro area. I think, however, there are a few things that need a bit of polish and then all will be fine.
Of course, I was in the company of other Chowhounds, so the evening was spent talking about food, food, food and more food. Overall, a good way to start the weekend: good food, good conversation, good people.
(Personal note to the Chowhounds at the table: I am thinking that this review could be titled either "My Dinner with A Supermodel," "Sinners with Wine," or "If the Pie Is Key Lime, It Must Be October.")
849 West University Drive
Tempe, AZ 85281
Notes: Be prepared to eat your dinner with your fingers.