Day 64: Eritrea
Okay, now I’m pissed off. This is what I get for not doing my proper research before eating at a restaurant. On our way back from San Diego, GirlfriendBites and I were going to eat at a restaurant in Laguna Beach. But then we realized that they didn’t open until 4 PM, so we decided to do something a little more convenient so that we could get back home at a reasonable hour and avoid traffic. So we settled on an Eritrean restaurant in Anaheim. Usually when I go to a restaurant, I’ll try to have a rough idea of what I’m getting myself into before I walk in the door, but people kept telling me “Oh, Eritrean food is just like Ethiopian food. It’s basically the same thing. Eritrea used to be a part of Ethiopia.” Even when I arrived at Merhaba, the Eritrean restaurant, I asked the waitress what is specifically Eritrean about the food, and she said “No. It is like Ethiopian food. The same.” At that point, I just assumed that she was right. And in a pretty accurate way, she was. Their basic cuisine is the same. So when I looked at the menu and saw “Spaghetti Silsie: Try our East-meet-West recipe with our special Silsie sauce and a side of salad seasoned with our home dressing” I turned to GFB and said “Is it sad that I really want that? Too bad it’s not authentic. It’s probably just some weird thing this place threw on the menu for fun or something.” So when I got home and did a little research, guess what I found? Eritrea was ruled by Italy from 1890 to 1941. Sure, it’s yet another example of Europe forcing itself on a section of Africa and refusing to leave, but if I know my Italians, it also means they took whatever the hell they could find around them and put it on some God damned spaghetti. This means that rather than eating a not-too-inspiring meal of the-same-as-Ethiopian-food, I could have been eating spaghetti with silsie. Not that I have any idea what silsie is.
Regardless, actually stepping into the restaurant is an interesting experience. There is a television playing a strange combination of East African music with clips from famous Hollywood movies on a channel called “ERITV” (an actual Eritrean television station), a table full of African men speaking in a language I could not even begin to understand— and a life sized cardboard cut out of Barack Obama. After foolishly talking myself out of the spaghetti, we order the “traditional combo”. Twenty minutes later, a round platter arrives with two beef dishes, a chicken dish and three vegetable dishes. There is nothing particularly bad about any of them, but they certainly lack the flair, flavor, complexity and just plain quality of any of the Ethiopian restaurants on the Fairfax strip of Little Ethiopia in Los Angeles. Nothing is noticeably different conceptually, other than the dish of fairly boring steamed vegetables. After a few bites, GirlfriendBites looks up and says, “This just makes me want doro tibs,” referring to the sauteed chicken dish she has grown to love. The chicken dish here is her favorite as well, an on-the-bone hunk of bird, coated in a dark, thick and vinegary “house hot sauce”. The lentils and collards are just good enough to remind you of what you’d rather be eating somewhere else— and the small chunks of beef are tough and gamey. While I’m very happy that there is an Eritrean restaurant represented in Anaheim and that it appears to be a place of community gathering, in the end, the part that satisfies me the most is really just that I managed to find an Eritrean restaurant at all. I wish the place all the best and know that they have put a lot of work into doing something that they love, so I feel bad for not liking it— but in the end, it has to come down to the food. Maybe I’ll just have to come back to this small Eritrean food corner some other day, go with my instincts, and order a plate of spaghetti. It is pretty close to Disneyland.
Merhaba Eritrean Restaurant
2801 W Ball Rd # 5
Anaheim, CA 92804
Food Breakdown: 1 combination plate
Distance From My House: 32.6 miles