Restaurateurs are trying their hand at fast-casual concepts of all stripes, from the nearly ubiquitous pizza, sandwich and “better burger” chains, to a growing set of Mediterranean and health-focused chains, and even some specializing in food served in bowls.
But Yamrot Ezineh is breaking new ground with LeTena, a fast-casual Ethiopian restaurant slated to open in Washington, D.C., next week.
“We’re trying to serve Ethiopian food, not just to have an experience, but like other mainstream food that anyone can walk in and eat any time,” Ezineh said.
Ethiopian food can be polarizing: The spices from the East African country are unfamiliar to most Americans, and meals are traditionally eaten by hand instead of with silverware. Dishes are served with a spongy-sour flatbread made with teff flour called injera that many consumers find off-putting.
Ezineh is maintaining the traditional flavors of Ethiopia, which enjoy a wider following in D.C. than in perhaps any other city in the United States because of the robust Ethiopian community there. She offers injera for those who want it, and they can even have their food wrapped in it, burrito-style, if they like. But she’s also offering bread and rice, “and if a customer wishes, they can use utensils,” she said.
Customers will order at the counter, take a number and have food delivered to their table. They can order small or large dishes of popular Ethiopian dishes such as the spicy chicken stew doro wot, charred spiced beef or chicken cubes called tibs, or kitfo, spiced minced beef served raw or cooked.
A wide variety of vegetarian options are available as well, including stewed lentils and chickpeas, toasted and spiced injera, collard greens, sautéed cabbage, and even a tofu version of tibs. Small and large versions of each dish will be available, and the menu items are denoted as being either mild or spicy. Prices range from $6.50 for small vegetarian dishes to $18.50 for a meat sampler with vegetarian side dishes.
Additionally, the menu has non-Ethiopian items for less adventuresome customers, including spaghetti, fried rice, chili con carne and a daily baked pasta special.
“Even if they’re not Ethiopian, they’re very common in Ethiopia,” Ezineh said of those items.
The restaurant is waiting for a beer and wine license, and it has a 20-seat coffee bar currently serving American coffee and espresso. However, in the next couple of months, Ezineh plans to introduce traditional Ethiopian coffee service for Sunday brunch, which involves washing, roasting, grinding and brewing the beans tableside.
The restaurant currently has 50 seats, but Ezineh said there is room for 80 seats, and she hopes to add more in the coming months.