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Dukem, Ethiopian on 11th and U Street with a Second Location in Baltimore


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I've been craving a hearty Ethiopian meal for months. It seems whenever I met up with friends for meals in the District I was conveniently talked into regular haunts, comfort food or new American...never Ethiopian. Happily that sad trend came to an abrupt hault this past Friday with a side trip to Dukem. One of my friends and I were guilted into making an appearance at a happy hour on 16th Street in honor of an acquaintance who was back in town for a visit. Since we were close-by and looking for an escape, we decided to tear out early and try something new. Having never ventured outside of Adams Morgan for my Tibs, we made our way down U Street looking for a parking space.

A word to the wise: Don't walk into Dukem on a Friday night at 7:30 without a reservation (who knew they took them?). We lucked into a very small table for two squashed up against the half wall divider that greets you at the front door. It was weird eating with people's heads floating so close above you throughout the meal, but once the food arrived, I zoned in on the Injera.

My friend and I shared the vegetable combo II with 7 items (Spicy split lentil, yellow peas, greens, cabbage, shiro, salad, potato in spicy sauce) and an order of Dukem Special Tibs (Lamb Cubed tender lamb marinated with our secret sauce sauteed onion rosemary, tomato, jalapeno touch of fresh garlic). Pretty safe choices, but absolutely excellent! The lamb was perfectly spiced and wasn't hidden under a ton of sauce so it blended well with pinches of each of the veggies on the plate.

Since we'd done happy hour before heading over for dinner, we passed on wine or an Ethiopian beer, bringing our tab to a measley $26 for the two of us. Cheap eats, indeed! After dinner at Dukem, the next Ethiopian craving will be squashed much sooner to be sure!!!

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I've been craving a hearty Ethiopian meal for months. It seems whenever I met up with friends for meals in the District I was conveniently talked into regular haunts, comfort food or new American...never Ethiopian. Happily that sad trend came to an abrupt hault this past Friday with a side trip to Dukem. One of my friends and I were guilted into making an appearance at a happy hour on 16th Street in honor of an acquaintance who was back in town for a visit. Since we were close-by and looking for an escape, we decided to tear out early and try something new. Having never ventured outside of Adams Morgan for my Tibs, we made our way down U Street looking for a parking space.

A word to the wise: Don't walk into Dukem on a Friday night at 7:30 without a reservation (who knew they took them?). We lucked into a very small table for two squashed up against the half wall divider that greets you at the front door. It was weird eating with people's heads floating so close above you throughout the meal, but once the food arrived, I zoned in on the Injera.

My friend and I shared the vegetable combo II with 7 items (Spicy split lentil, yellow peas, greens, cabbage, shiro, salad, potato in spicy sauce) and an order of Dukem Special Tibs (Lamb Cubed tender lamb marinated with our secret sauce sauteed onion rosemary, tomato, jalapeno touch of fresh garlic). Pretty safe choices, but absolutely excellent! The lamb was perfectly spiced and wasn't hidden under a ton of sauce so it blended well with pinches of each of the veggies on the plate.

Since we'd done happy hour before heading over for dinner, we passed on wine or an Ethiopian beer, bringing our tab to a measley $26 for the two of us. Cheap eats, indeed! After dinner at Dukem, the next Ethiopian craving will be squashed much sooner to be sure!!!

When my cousin told me that she and her 15-year-old were coming to town, the obvious first question was, "What does she like to eat?"

"American," she replied. "Nothing adventurous."

So I booked our first night at Cashion's, where I talked her into eating bison and planted the first Ethiopian seed. "It's really not that strange--just stews, really. And you eat it with your hands using a sort of pancake that tastes sort of like sourdough bread." The response was skeptical, but intrigued.

The second dinner at Blue Duck was another success--teenager's first duck, which she loved, and after which she said, "Let's try Ethiopian next!"

So we spent their last night in town at Dukem. We got one of the vegetarian samplers with a couple of meat dishes added. It was actually my first time there, and I have to say I felt a bit... eh. I mean, it was fine, but it seemed to be missing a bit of spark. But the service was great, and the price was certainly right...

And teenager LOVED it. Our little midwestern gal gobbled it up, especially loving the yellow lentils. And what's more, she asked her mom if, next spring break, they could come with me to Ethiopia.

Success! Another Midwesterner converted from chicken fingers and Orlando to tibs and other sub-Saharan delights. Mwa ha ha ha ha...

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Ate here last night with Waitman and the boy. I had outstanding kitfo, very good gomen and misir wat and really unpleasant kik alitcha.

The dishes that I liked were very deeply and complexly (is that a word?) spiced and the seving sizes were perfect. The kik alitcha was underspiced and had an unfortunate combination of crunchiness to it coupled with mushiness and a really bland flavourlessness. It lacked (to my taste at least) garlic, turmeric and ginger.

The service was very efficient and the place was hopping but not crushing. I will gladly go back but since Nora's a kik alitcha fanatic it may be a while.

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So I'm at this conference in Lamu, Kenya. During a session on East African diasporas, they show us a photo of a billboard on the Addis Ababa airport road advertising Dukem--"the best Ethiopian food in Washington, DC!!" Global communities at work...

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Overrated. Dukem does some things well, but takes a number of serious short-cuts that make for a disappointing experience.

They do have one of the more appealing decors of the restaurants in Little Ethiopia, and you can't fault their primo location right on the corner of 12th and U. But the dearth of Ethiopians dining inside should have been a strong clue. Phyllis Richman used to interrogate DC's cabbies to see where they ate, and apart from the cigarette smoke factor back in the pre-ban days, this was a hugely successful formula. It'd be easy to accuse them of being a "yuppie Ethiopian" restaurant, but that would be unfair to Meskerem over on 18th St, which attracts a similar crowd but serves wholly more satisfying food.

Sambusas were slightly greasy on the exterior, but barely lukewarm on the interior. The injera here is unusually thin, short on sourness, and has an odd mottled appearance, all of which point to a meager proportion of teff in the flour. We ordered three mains plus a vegetarian assortment, and they accepted our request to skew the latter toward more mesir wat. The main portions included a large portion of their respective sauces, but the assorted veggie dabs around the central platter were easily the smallest I've seen in 25 years of eating Ethiopian around town. The one honey wine on the list leaned heavily toward the dry end of the spectrum, unlike most of the tej in this town which is quite sweet. (For a real treat, order the tej at Queen Makeda sometime, a cloudy and rustic version that's served up in traditional Ethiopian glass flasks.)

To their credit, Dukem's regular kitfo (one of three variants!) is quite spicy and yet very well-balanced. I usually ask for some extra mitmita on the side, but this version really didn't need it. Their doro wat was pleasantly tender, and while the tibs may have been somewhat light on meat, the sauce was very good.

But.

You simply can't skimp on the injera - it's not only a staple of the cuisine, but it's the one component that's in every single bite. And Dukem's injera undermined everything on the platter but the kitfo. Too much fail...I'm not bothering with them again anytime soon.

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We decided to go back to old standby Dukem after all, and had a fantastic meal. The group of us split regular as well as a vegetarian sampler platter, plus kitfo and a really nice special dish of spicy, ground fish. With one minor exception (bland yellow lentils) all the flavors were vibrant, and the place was hopping.

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So it is said, that one day in 1943, about a dozen or so officers wives on a shopping spree in a border town in Mexico wandered into a restaurant called the Victory Club. Though the accounts dont typically mention this, I like to think that all of the women were more than a little tipsy. Unfortunately for them, the restaurant had closed for the day and, with few exceptions, everything had been sold. But, it being a border town, the restaurant owner did not want to disappoint the nice Gringos with money. So he told Chef Ignacio Anaya to come up with something, anything, for these well-heeled women. Having nothing but leftover tortillas, cheese, and jalapeños at his disposal, the Nacho was born (Nacho, of course, was the chefs nickname).

Again it happened late one night in 1964, as Teressa Belissimo watched over the Anchor Bar in Buffalo New York, which she owned with her husband, Frank Lentz (who likely would not have allowed this to story to occur). That night, her son Dominic wandered in with his friends from college doubtlessly drunk looking for food. Again, limited by what was on hand at that late hour, she had her cook whip up a feast from some leftover chicken wings, hot sauce, and butter. The Buffalo wing was born.

And so, in the shadow of such legends, I found myself on the eve of Thanksgiving in 2010, the accidental beneficiary of scarcity. My girlfriend and I wandered out of the 9:30 club onto U Street, several drinks into a good night, looking for food. We tried the nearest establishment, Nelly's, but they were done cooking for the night. I immediately considered Ohh and Ahhs, but, this being late on the Wednesday night before a major holiday, they too were closed. As was Etete. So, when my girlfriend gave me a choice between finding the next open place to eat and death (followed, shortly thereafter, by her consuming my carcass), I decided Dukem was a better idea than the line at Bens.

The place was not only open, it was bouncing. Literally. It was full of (who I assume were) Ethiopians having a great time, dancing to (what I assume was) Ethiopian music. No one was eating, but, undeterred, we asked our waitress for menus. No menus. The kitchen was open, but there were only two choices: fried beef and fried lamb. And they didnt have injera, only regular bread.

This was a bit of a quandary for me, given my girlfriends vegetarian proclivities (notwithstanding her recent threats). So I was as surprised as you might imagine when she demanded the lamb (but, lets face it, most vegetarians are one good drunk away from a cheeseburger). Ten minutes later, the meat arrived, adorned by a few onions, fresh jalapeños, and four small French rolls. Im pretty sure that what we ended up with was Dukems version of yebeg tibs with rolls instead of injera.

It didnt look that promising. Then I cracked a roll. It was clearly store-bought bread, but it was very fresh and somehow better than what Ive had in most of the sub shops that ship their rolls in from Philly. It was nicely toasted and the inside was like luscious cotton. The roll steamed as I cracked it. I greedily crammed the meat into my roll until it wouldnt take any more and dug in.

I had created the perfect sandwich.

It was amazing: the bread, the (limited) vegetables, and the juice were like a good cheesesteak, but with the flavor of Ninth Street instead of South Street. I would recommend you try one, but Im not sure you can. Clearly, my epiphany was, for Dukem, a problem and they seemed embarrassed to serve it to me. But in that moment, it was perfect.

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Hit up Dukem last week with the omnivore brother, vegan sister-in-law, and pescatarian gf. Ethiopian is always a good choice with this crowd!

Went with the veggie sampler (7 items), fried fish, and special lamb tibs. Overall I would have to rate Dukem below Etete and Ethiopic. The veg sampler was not as interesting flavor wise as what we have had at both Etete and Ethiopic, the lamb tibs was boring, little flavor, no heat and the meat was tough. The fried fish was good.

One additional expense: Dry cleaning bill. The constant roasting of coffee beans by the front stage perfumes the air...and your clothes.

However, with its live music and yes coffee roasting Dukem is the more entertaining and lively restaurant of the three.

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