We note in this article that Nile is the only Ethiopian restaurant in town. Since this article was published a 2nd Ethiopian restaurant has open near Baymeadows called Ibex.
For today’s review we got up the courage to do something way out the ordinary and try Nile Ethiopian Restaurant on Powers Avenue. It’s our understanding that Nile Ethiopian is the only Ethiopian Restaurant in Jacksonville. Nile Ethiopian Restaurant is in a tired strip next to a laundromat. The outside of the shopping center looks pretty run down. Inside the restaurant is pretty plain. They’ve got some Ethiopian pictures and decorations but you definitely wouldn’t go there for the environment. The one big positive was the entire place was full of new and delicious smells wafting from the kitchen. We went on a Tuesday evening and we were one of three parties that ate in, while two others took food to go.
The first thing to know about Ethiopian food is that it is spicy. Thai food doesn’t hold a candle to it! Even the mild versions of Ethiopian dishes at Nile would rate as the upper end of medium at most place. We ordered doro wat, tibs firfir, and a vegetable combination, all of the mild variety. All Ethiopian food is served the same way: on a platter to be shared at the table with injere. Injere is a type of bread made from a grass (which means it is gluten free). Injere is the texture of crepes although a bit more airy in texture with a flavor more like sourdough. You tear off pieces of injere and use it to scoop up the food. No utensils required or provided!
Doro wat ($11.99) is a traditional Ethiopian dish. It’s a chicken stew cooked in broth with berbere (a hot Ethiopian seasoning blend of red chili, garlic, salt, and a bunch of other spices which give berbere depth), herbal butter, garlic, onion, and a hardboiled egg. Our doro wat had great flavor, it just also had a lot of spice to it, so we struggled to eat it. If you really like spicy food you’ll probably love it.
Next up was tibs firfir. I had wanted to try tibs of some kind because it is sort of the Ethiopian version of fajitas…Sort of. It’s meat cooked with onions and Ethiopian spices. We decided on the tibs firfir because we saw a small table of Ethiopian men eating it and explaining it to a person who hadn’t ever tried Ethiopian food. We figured “when in Rome do as the Romans do” or Ethiopia as the case may be. The menu description is “beef awaze tibs mixed with injera. So it was basically small pieces of beef with many small pieces of injera soaked in the sauce. It had some good flavor, but was injera heavy and meat light. I believe that’s just a cultural difference, where in the US we eat a lot of meat, and in Ethiopia maybe not so much. Finally the vegetable combo. It came with split lentils cooked with tomatoes, onions, and berbere, collard greens with rice, split peas, green cabbage with rice, alicha dinich which is potatoes, and difin misir, which is whole lentils. To be perfectly honest we could only identify the collard greens, green cabbage, and whole lentils on the platter. The other items were more of a mashed/puréed consistency, which was great for scooping up with injera. All of the items in the vegetarian combo had great flavor.
One of the things that was included on our platter that we didn’t see on the menu was cottage cheese. Or at least, our waiter called it cottage cheese. It wasn’t wet like cottage cheese. It was a pile of mild, white, crumbled cheese. It really helped to eat a bit of cheese with bites of doro wat and tibs firfir. That took the burning down a notch, thankfully.
As we were leaving an Indian family was arriving. They stopped to ask us how our dinner had been. We told them it was great, authentic, just too spicy for us. They laughed and thanked us and said they’d be fine. (We agreed.) They said they had seen Nile Ethiopian Restaurant online and wanted to check it out, but were a bit put off by the exterior. We assured them it was nicer inside with good food and helpful employees. Besides being a pleasant and mildly amusing interaction, it really got me thinking about how people choose restaurants. It’s no secret we aren’t fans of chain restaurants. They’re generally okay, but the popularity of a mediocre place like Applebee’s is dumbfounding for us. Don’t people want good food? I get it, it’s a risk to go to a small, independent, unknown restaurant, and at least at a place like Applebee’s you know what you’re getting, mediocrity… predictable at least. But c’mon! When you go to a place like that you are never going to have an incredible meal, you are never going to learn about a new culture, and you’re never going to experience culinary passion in terms of food preparation and service. We’ve tried a lot of restaurants in order to write reviews and we can confidently say that the best meals don’t usually come from the restaurants that are packed. The best meals come as a complete surprise from trying some restaurant that you might even have been hesitant about. Just something to think about next time you’re choosing a restaurant.
All in all we enjoyed our meal at Nile Ethiopian Restaurant. Our waiter was helpful and our food was prepared very well, albeit a bit spicy for us. We definitly suggest checking out Nile next time you’re looking to take a food adventure.
If you want an overview of Ethiopian food before you go, checkout http://blogs.houstonpress.com/eating/2013/05/here_eat_this_a_beginners_guid_8.php. Note that it references a restaurant in Houston, which is of no help to us in Jax, but the info on cuisine is easy to read and really helpful in preparing before you go.