Hidmo Eritrean Restaurant
2000 S Jackson St, 329-1534
Tues-Sat 11 am-2 am, Sun 5 pm-2 am.

Some advice if you decide to eat at Hidmo Eritrean restaurant: Seek out the hut. The rest of the dining room looks a little like a laundromat stripped of its machines, but that fluorescence is tempered beneath the shelter of the thatched roof where, seated beside a simulated earthen oven, one can pretend to warm ones hands by the cellophane flames. Two ersatz chickens pose in front of the hearth with a display of baskets and cooking implements. Our table boasted a clear top above a mosaic of lentils. The effect in total was one-part anthropology lesson, one-part Epcot display.

Frankly, if you're like me, you need a little education on Eritrea. When I first learned about East African cuisine by dining in Ethiopian restaurants some dozen years ago, a full two-thirds of all the places I tried were called Red Sea. This is confusing, because since winning its independence from Ethiopia after 30 years of war, it is in fact Eritrea that borders the Red Sea, leaving Ethiopia landlocked. (It just goes to show how little you can learn by eating out.) The two countries rehashed their hostilities in a devastating 1998 border war, and currently eke out an uneasy peace.

Despite the strife between the two countries, Eritrean cuisine should feel familiar to frequent Ethiopian diners. The heart of a meal in both cases is injera, the spongy, slightly sour pancake bread that serves as serving platter, sauce sopper, and utensil. I find injera-eating one of the most collegial ways to share food, much better than the frenetic passing of small plates, or the vague menace of forks reaching across the table to try someone else's meat. Instead each person wraps their hand in a hygienic hunk of flatbread and grabs a morsel of whichever preparation looks appealing. Double dipping is nearly impossible.

My friends, who are still glowing over their engagement, were new to any kind of East African cuisine, so we started off with one of my favorite dishes, fitfit ($6.95), a sort of bread salad made with chilies, onion, tomatoes, and citrus juice. The fitfits I've had before have been made with ground tomatoes and were smooth, but at Hidmo, the fitfit was chunky like a pico de gallo, offering welcome crunch to a meal of many mushes. "It's like fattoush!" said the fiancée, referring to the yummy Lebanese pita-bread salad. Indeed. Someone, perhaps me, should take a census of all the bread salads around the globe--so far, I have found them to be a force of good in this world.

When I eat East African food, I almost always order a veggie sampler ($8.95), an important strategy to maximize the variety of dishes one gets on one's injera. At Hidmo the veggie special went a long way toward fulfilling the nine daily servings of vegetables (or fruit) the USDA now recommends for a balanced diet. There were the familiar red and yellow lentils, sautéed greens, green and yellow string beans, a mild, yellow-hued stew of cabbage and carrots, and a green salad--romaine dressed in a nice lemon-pepper vinaigrette. The combo also included a pile of fresh crumbled cheese, which was delicate in flavor, a little like the paneer at an Indian restaurant, and essential for cooling off when spiciness flared up. Frankly the veggies at Hidmo tasted like they were on a bit of a diet--somewhat less buttery and spicy than those I've had at other East African restaurants. But this was all made up for by the scrumptious okra, lush and subtly spiced. (Oh okra, you edible paradox--how can you be both crunchy and slimy? And why is that so good?)

Nestled up to the pile of okra was zegni beghie ($9.95), lamb stewed until it falls in dark henna-brown shreds. It had a darkly sweet pepper flavor and a lingering after-burn. (See crumbled cheese, above.) Kelwa derho ($9.95) looked handsome, with its neat cubes of chicken cooked with chilies, onion, and tomato, but tasted somewhat parched. Injera eating is really most fun with sloppy, slurpy stews like the okra and the zegni beghie anyway. So, before we left our simulated slice of village, we did finish off the braised lamb--nibbling straight through the injera and leaving a bit of the underlying metal tray peeping through. After all, when you're eating East African, clearing your plate means eating it too.

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