Nile serves finger-lickin' Ethiopian delicacies

Mention "Ethiopian" and "food" in the same breath and you'll likely be greeted with an incredulous snicker, a famine-related wisecrack or silence, followed by a look of utter perplexity. Granted, Ethiopia is more commonly associated with civil strife and natural catastrophe than it is gastronomy, but to sample cuisine from the "Cradle of Humanity" is to sample the cuisine of our past. Those of you with an appetite for the exotic, limber up your fingers and prep yourself for a utensil-free dining affair at this tourist-area gem.

Actually, utensils are employed, but come in the form of spongy, pancake-like sourdough spools called injera. The idea is to unfurl, then tear off pieces of the tangy bread and use it to scoop up mouthfuls of the gently stewed and sauteed dishes. Oh, and communal dining is also encouraged, which means each saucy item ordered is spooned into a sector of one large injera-layered tin platter, after which digits are free to dodge and dig at will (so long as they've been washed beforehand but, really, I don't need to tell you that).

Diners can also opt to sit at traditional straw tables with stools called mesob, though judging from how stuffed you'll be after the injera swells in your stomach, a seat with a backrest is a more prudent choice. And after a few bites of the gored gored ($12.95), you'll know what I'm talking about. The dish, tailored to diners with a penchant for pepper, has a heap of beef cubes lolling in a fiery-red spice mixture called mitmita, which ultimately stains the underlying injera in a drench of scarlet unctuousity.

The deep-red hue in the sauce of the awaze tibs ($11.95) comes from a berbere marinade, made from a blend of red pepper, garlic, fenugreek, cardamom and coriander. Lean morsels of beef sauteed with yellow peppers, jalapenos, onions and garlic made it a favorite of mine, and I couldn't help but tear off a piece of the saturated bottom layer of injera and hand-shovel it into my yap. Zilzil tibs ($12.95) was a similar dish, except the beef was a little more fatty.

Ethiopian diners typically enjoy eating the above dishes raw, and though chef/owner Muka Hailab doesn't recommend it for Western palates, the invitation is always open to daring gastronomes.

Kitfo ($11.95) features finely minced beef cooked with clarified butter and mitmita and comes served with crumbles of flavorless white cheese. The chili-spiked dish had a nice overall zing and gingery smack, but compared to the tibs, most of it was left uneaten.

Beef, as you can surmise, dominates the menu, though there's a smattering of lamb, seafood and poultry dishes, as well as options for vegetarians.

Doro wat ($13.95), a chicken stew simmered in berbere and served with a boiled egg, lacked the flavor intensity of the beef dishes, and the lone scrawny leg hardly made it worth the price.

Diners apprehensive about getting their hands ooky should start with the tomato fitfit ($5.50), a proper initiation into the world of digital dining. The salad plate comes with tomatoes, jalapenos and onions tossed in a lemony vinaigrette and mixed with injera. The appetizer is also served with two rolls of injera, but if eating with your hands really turns you off, you can request a fork and knife. But really, don't be so lame.

The baklava ($1.95) is so-so, but if you crave a sweet ending, sample the tej ($4.50), a honey wine similar to mead served in a rounded flask called a berele. Otherwise, order a jebena (clay pot) of freshly brewed coffee ($3.50) – Ethiopia, after all, is where the beverage originated. Tradition dictates downing at least three cups of the strong brew, as the third round is said to bestow a blessing. The blessing for me, however, was enjoying some damn fine coffee in the heart of International Drive.

Nile is wedged in the same strip mall as an Irish pub and a Brazilian churrascaria, not to mention the Royal Wedding Chapel (only in Orlando). Hey, if the world comes to feed on I-Drive, it's nice, for once, to see Ethiopia feed the world.


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