For decades, Zemam's has been in the same spot on Broadway Boulevard, serving up highly praised, authentic Ethiopian food out of a small, 50-seat restaurant—and in a market that sees serious restaurant turnover, year after year, that's no small feat.
With the new Zemam's, Too! (yes, the exclamation point is in the sign, though I'll be dropping it from this point on in the review), owner Amanuel Gebremariam has given into the temptation to expand that he resisted for the longest time, but instead of increasing seating at the original location, he expanded his operation to the west, opening in the former Garland Bistro on Speedway Boulevard.
Zemam's new location flat out dwarfs the original; Zemam's Too features more than 90 seats, along with outdoor patio seating in what is, like the original, a converted house that is just off of the street; this, plus a view of the fireplace in the front room, as well as the music playing in the background, offers a comfortable, homestyle feeling.
First things first, if you've never eaten food with your hands alone before, Zemam's will happily acquaint you with the concept. Entreés come served to you on a large piece of injera, a traditional flatbread that is light, spongy and has a faint, sourdough-like taste.
Eating with it is much like picking something up with a Kleenex; tear a piece off, wrap it around a bite-sized portion, insert said portion into mouth and repeat. Mexican food fans, if you've eaten an entire meal with just a tortilla, you're ahead of the game here. In fact, the only time you'll see a utensil is when you're given a spatula to aid you in placing your food into to-go containers — and given the portion sizes, you'll have some food to take home.
The service is fast; like, "how in the world is my food ready so quickly, I just took a drink of my water" fast. Seriously, I probably spent more time perusing the menu each time than it took for my food to arrive after my order.
And honestly, as good as the food is, it didn't arrive fast enough each time.
My first visit, I got a vegetable and meat sampler, with spinach, yetakelt wat and the spicy boneless chicken ($10.75). My next, I ordered a three-meat sampler, with the non-spicy boneless chicken, spicy lamb, and gored-gored ($11.75, with a two dollar charge added for lamb and fish, taking this one to $13.75).
Honestly, everything was delicious; the food is all based off of recipes by the owner's late mother, who also happens to be the restaurant's namesake, and I'm convinced that he's doing his mother proud with this food. The meats are rich, with spices that aren't overpowering, though it's worth noting that the spicy boneless chicken doesn't pull any punches; it was hot enough to make my nose run, so those with tender palates will want to stay away from anything that describes itself as "spicy"; in that case, they'll want to try the non-spicy alternative. It's slightly drier, as it doesn't rest in the same sauce, but it's just as good.
My favorite among the meats, however, was the spicy lamb. In this case, the heat was definitely there, but not overpowering—the meat was succulent and tender, and the sauce was so good I was mildly disappointed it had already soaked into the injera by the time I finished the meat.
In fact, were it not for the lamb, the yetakelt wat would have been my favorite among my orders. It's not an attractive dish—none of them are, to be honest, but it's not like you're a Top Chef judge expecting super-star plating, right?—but it is a delicious one; the potatoes, sauce and vegetables blended together, leaving both sweet and rich flavors lingering in my mouth. If it weren't for the fact that, as part of this gig, I'm supposed to review as much as I can, I probably would've gotten that twice more on my next visit.
Unfortunately, the spinach was my least-favorite of my orders, though not by any fault of its own; the stewed, spiced, leafy greens just didn't have a chance compared to the rest of the food I had ordered.
To drink, you have the option of choosing between tea, coffee, soda or juice; they don't serve alcoholic beverages here. But, on the occasion that you'd like to bring some wine, ciders or beer in on your own, you're welcome to, the owner told me. I witnessed it myself, when a group of patrons brought in, from what I could see, was a bottle of wine and a six-pack of hard cider.
My two non-food-related warnings: For those of you who have difficulty picking up accents, or are slightly hard of hearing, you might run into a bit of trouble. My server on the first night had no problems taking my order or understanding me, but I had a bit of trouble understanding. This is likely my fault, either because I'm an idiot or I spent too much time playing and listening to loud music in my youth, but it's worth noting for those readers who have trouble in that area.
Also, there doesn't seem to be a website dedicated to Zemam's, Too quite yet. You can go off of the menu for the original Zemam's, but there are slight differences, so keep that in mind if you're researching beforehand.
Overall, if you're a fan of delicious, honest food, get yourself to Zemam's, Too; it's every bit as good as the original, just in a larger location.