IT WAS WITH CHAGRIN that I scuffed away from a certain Ethiopian restaurant in the Central District last July. The place came recommended as having decent food at bargain prices. But the restaurant, which I won't name, served me such an awful, careless mound of red stuff posing as berebere lentils that I thought I was looking at the scrapings of a skin rash.

Imagine my delight when I found, wholly by accident, Taste of Addis, a casual Ethiopian spot new to the University District and established just in time before the cool and fickle weather of fall arrives, when such warm food as this will be most satisfying.

Taste of Addis owner Mesekir Belay has put together a serviceable cafe, obviously from a strained budget, replete with decor curiosities such as a white bust of George Washington, two randomly placed full-length mirrors leaning against the walls, a paint-by-numbers representation of wild deer, along with other kitsch artworks upon pleasant, eggshell-blue-washed walls. Ethiopian travel posters and living room lamps help make the place comfortable. But Belay's cooking will make you forget all else.

The traditional Ethiopian stews here are outstanding and finely detailed, served on large enameled trays which, beneath the food, depict a world of flowers in dreamily bright colors. Belay's cabbage with carrots and potatoes (traditionally called Atkilte Alitcha), a very simple dish, blooms inordinately with a surprising delicacy and whispers of flavors that are deft, slippery, and mild. Belay renders the vegetables extremely tender, and their own liquory properties stand up nicely alongside the mild spices and olive oil; in the face of this humble yet superior cooking, it is not embarrassing to become sentimental about a mound of spinach. The Vegetarian Combo ($3.75/$5.25), which includes the cabbage and garlicky spinach dishes, as well as yellow lentils, red lentils, and green salad, is comfort food of the highest water. The memory of Belay's broccoli/green bean dish (not on the menu, but he cooks it occasionally for the Combo) is one of happiness -- not happiness for life at large, which is composed of bitter problems and egregious people who slash other people's tires in parking space feuds, but happiness over the existence of such intelligently, carefully prepared food.

The most popular dish on Taste of Addis' small menu is Tibs ($3.75/$5.25), a spicy meat stew with undertones of buttery onions. The night we had it, the meat registered as chewy rather than soft, but the flavor was bold. The salad, which comes with the vegetarian combo or can be ordered alone ($1.75), is finely chopped, and employs green leaf lettuce instead of the usual iceberg found at other Ethiopian restaurants. With the addition of red onions and jalapeños, it's firecrackery-delicious. If you don't like spicy salad, though, you can tell Belay to ease up on the peppers.

The Foul Feta ($3.75) salad combines the dense, smoky texture of foul (fava) beans with cheese, tomato, and onion, and comes with pita bread. It's best to share it, because it's so concentrated.

Belay, a kind man who thought nothing of lending change to a passerby for a parking meter one slow, sunny afternoon, said that his family in Ethiopia ships him spices bimonthly in a wooden crate, and he showed me the current month's stash. Unwrapping the box of treasure, he pointed out what he called "mitmitia," a hot red pepper powder, the key ingredient in the Tibs berebere sauce. It consists, he says, of sun-dried red pepper powder, which is milled with garlic and other spices, then milled again until it resembles flour. Addis' injera, or teff bread, the traditional complement to Ethiopian stews, is not made on site, and thus seems less soft and sour than other Ethiopian establishments' varieties. And frustratingly, Addis doesn't serve extra injera with the small-sized meals unless you ask for it, which defeats the purpose of eating these grand platters: One scoops up the admixtures of stews with injera; naturally, there are no forks.

Given that raids and the territorial conquests of history affect cuisine and cooking methods, Italian cuisine is implicated in Ethiopian and Eritrean cooking; Belay's nod to this is his spaghetti with meat sauce ($3.75), a fairly standard-tasting dish, although its sauce is interestingly sweeter than we were used to, and tinged slightly with ginger root. Pizza slices ($1.50-$2) are also on the menu. Ethiopian and American beer, as well as honey wine, round out the mix.

This cafe eschews some of the standard Ethiopian dishes like Kitfo (steak tartare), but this scaled-back menu suits the U-District's gangly crowd, and also helps bring prices almost absurdly low. All in all, Taste of Addis is a real gem.

Taste of Addis 4106 Brooklyn Ave NE, 634-1916

Mon-Fri 11 am-9 pm, Sat 1-9 pm, Sun 5-10 pm

Support The Stranger