A Dozen Dives: Karibu

12 places we’re drawn to in spite of ourselves. And sometimes in spite of themselves.
Day 8: Karibu
1209 E. Seventh St. 320-5454, www.ethiopianrestaurantaustin.com.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Wednesday. 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday. 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday-Saturday. Closed Sunday.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 04.16.12
UPDATE: Karibu has closed. A restaurant and bar called the Hightower is opening in the space.
"All of my dishes have garlic and ginger. Without that, I don't cook." Jodit Kassa told me that just after she and her husband, Solomon, opened Karibu in 2008. Their Ethiopian restaurant took the place of an old Tex-Mex spot, and it adopted the stacked-stone facade, the shingled mansard roof, the bars on the doors and the aqueduct arches along the half-wall that divides the dining room. Karibu added the awning on front, twinkling with year-round Christmas lights, and decorated with African textiles and the conical crown baskets that go with the food of the owners’ native land. In the sense of its modest layout and humble exterior, Karibu is a dive. But its continental food — from the big continent south of Europe — argues otherwise.
What you’re eating: One of the city’s best $6.99 lunch plates. A beef-and-chicken sampler with three vegetable sides, starting with kay wot, the plate’s fat man of chunky seared beef sweating through a heavy cloak of red-chile berbere sauce. Think Tex-Mex gravy with an oily sheen that soaks through wide, flat circles of injera bread, a cross between a sourdough tortilla and a kitchen sponge meant to soak up everything on the plate as you tear it off and fold it around finger-fulls of food. Curl the injera with the bubbly side down to capture the demure sauce of split yellow peas and curry holding the tender roasted chicken of a dish called doro alicha.
The Ethiopian style of slowly stewing meats with sauces in a broad palette of earthen tones appeals to our old-world Western sensibilities. What appeals to my newer-world sensibilities are vegetables cooked with the same slow-cooked embrace. Keep your smug zucchini-cauliflower-broccoli al-dente penitence. Give me string beans stewed with carrots (fosolia) or soft cabbage with tomatoes and onions (tikil gomen) or the fiery mash of split red lentils in the kay wot sauce that will make vegetarian and fat man perspire alike.
What you’re drinking: The ritual burning of charcoal as the waitress pours coffee from an earthen jug sets up the buna experience. Yodit Kassa roasts green Ethiopian coffee beans to order in a tiny pot, then makes coffee so full of aromatic grounds and opaque ebony sediment you expect to see stems and seeds. It’s intoxicating, like the sandalwood incense aroma of a shop where you want everything but buy nothing, because where would you put it? The porcelain demitasse cup is left with a smooth layer of slurry like a river rock from a stream that flows through a French press.
Other options: Lunch is served through 2 p.m., and the $6.99 menu includes a six-veggie plate or combinations of beef, chicken and veggies with injera and a salad of chopped iceberg and a dice of onion and tomato like pico de gallo. Available at lunch and dinner, Karibu’s main menu carries bigger portions and adds dishes like stewed collard greens with ginger and garlic (abesha gomen) and nearly raw beef called kitfo served with purified butter and cottage cheese. Entree prices run $8.95 to $13.50, and Karibu has a full bar.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)