It seems silly to call Zemam’s, Tucson’s only Ethiopian restaurant, “Tucson’s best Ethiopian restaurant”, but at the same time right to call it the “best” something. As Ethiopian restaurants go, it’s about average in price and quality , but Ethiopian cuisine is so good–and culinary standards at the average Ethiopian restaurant so high–that an average Ethiopian restaurant is an above-average restaurant. At Zemam’s the doro wat (chicken stew) is falling-off-the-bone tender, the yetakelt (mixed vegetable) dishes al dente, and the beef perfectly done. Nearly everything is seasoned with berebere, a curry-like spice blend, but subtle dish-appropriate differences and the omission of berebere altogether in some of the vegetable preparations keep things from becoming monotonous.
This is one of the places I like to take out-of-town visitors, especially those who’ve already tried some of the area’s great Mexican restaurants, not only because the food is good, but also because it’s a lot of fun. The center of an Ethiopian meal is injera, a sourdough pancake made of teff flour. The stews are often served atop an injera, and at Zemam’s a few more are provided, usually just enough to finish the meal. The injera is used like roti at a (North) Indian meal; Bits of stew or sauce are rolled up in a piece of injera using the right hand and then eaten. Perhaps fork, spoons, and knives are available on request, but I’ve never seen this; eating with the hands using injera is easier than it sounds, and the food seems meant to be eaten this way.
A note about injera, in Zemam’s menu.
The best way to eat at Zemam’s is for everyone or most people in the party to order the Zemam’s Plate (about $12 at the time of writing), which allows each diner to choose three items from the menu (except relatively expensive steak and lamb dishes), ordering vegetables, pulses, and meat in a 1:1:1 ratio. If there are enough people in the party, it may be worth ordering the lamb stew and one less Zemam’s Plate. Doro wat, a chicken stew served with a boiled egg if ordered alone, is Ethiopia’s best-known dish and a “safe” choice for beginners. Nearly everything on the menu is good, and nothing so alien that it requires an “adventurous” spirit. The must-have dish is the gomen wat, a gently spiced stew of finely diced collard greens and onion. If you’ve only had collards prepared in the American style–which isn’t bad when done right–the gomen wat will be a revelation, so superior in taste and texture that you’d think it made from a different vegetable altogether.
Ethiopian Christians, be they Oriental Orthodox or Ethiopian Catholic, fast more often and more strictly than their European or American counterparts. For 40 days preceding Christmas, 40 days of Lent, seven days before Lent, all of Holy Week, and the 2-6 week period between Pentecost and the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, and numerous other smaller observances, Ethiopian believers are strict vegans, abstaining from eggs, meat (including seafood), and dairy products. Accordingly, Ethiopian cuisine is rich in nutritious and filling vegan dishes, in which protein is provided by lentils and similar pulses such as chickpeas and pigeon peas (toor dhal to those familiar with Indian culinary terminology.) With Earth Day coming up, we should consider wholly nonreligious reasons to eat in a vegan fashion more often. Not only does a meat-centered diet contribute to arteriosclerosis and cancers of the digestive system, but it takes approximately ten pounds of feed and two thousand five hundred gallons of additional water to produce one pound of meat. While the meat dishes at Zemam’s are delicious, it’s perhaps the best place in town for a carnivore to go meatless for a night. Order the gomen wat (collards), a mixed vegetable stew, and a couple of lentil dishes and you won’t feel like you’ve missed a thing.
Until 2007 Zemam’s walls were painted a glossy white color, adding glare to already harsh lighting. A repainting and adjustment of the lights made the dining area–almost Spartan, but cozy and relatively private due to Zemam’s being a converted house–much more comfortable. The restaurant’s only serious fault is understaffing. The help is polite, but inattentive on busy nights due to being stretched too thinly. Prepare to dine at a “relaxed” pace, like it or not. Appetizers would be put to good use, but appetizers and desserts are alien to Ethiopian cuisine. To satisfy our Western sweet tooth, ice cream is offered, but since the Zemam’s Plate is a full meal (no more and no less) it’s superfluous. Although a commercial example of tej (Ethiopian spiced mead) is now on the market, those wanting to try tej, tella, or other Ethiopian beverages except coffee (similar to the Arabic or Greek preparation) are out of luck. Aside from coffee, beverage choices are limited to a few teas, water, and soda pop, but this is augmented by the best BYOB policy in Tucson. Zemam’s is one of the few restaurants that openly encourage bringing your own beer or wine; for a $1.50 corkage you can have your choice. I recommend an off-dry gewürztraminer, although on a recent visit a dry albariño purchased at Plaza Liquors paired surprisingly well, not rendered “hot” by the berebere at all.
Zemam’s is located at 2731 E. Broadway, on the north side of the street near its intersection with Treat. It’s usually open for dinner; phone ahead to confirm hours.
For more information: Call (520) 323-9928 during business hours.