Look Both Ways at Kaffa Crossing

Great Ethiopian food without flourishes.

By Brian Freedman
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 18, 2011

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Meat ball: Kitfo at Kaffa Crossing—raw beef isn't often this appetizing.

Photo by Ryan Strand

Kaffa Crossing’s glassed-in storefront glows with a warm magnetism that seems to exist outside the season. Don’t fight it. Enter this bright cafe with well-loved hardwood floors and treat yourself to an excellent, refreshingly affordable meal.

Even with all the dining strides American culture has made over the last several decades, the food of Ethiopia remains a bit of an outlier, overshadowed by the now-familiar charms of other cultures’ foods. So a visit to Kaffa Crossing is instructive: It’s a reminder that there are still culinary destinations that remain relatively unexplored (note to any West Philly-ites now thinking “pssh, I’ve been eating kitfo for like ever”—you are not the only people who exist). And Kaffa’s Crossing is a hearty, thoroughly delicious demonstration of all that Ethiopian food has to offer.

Start off with an order of sambusa. This shatteringly-fried pastry, filled with a softly perfumed, starchy-but-not-heavy assortment of onions, lentils and green peppers, hints at the range of flavors to come without getting fully into them—a thoroughly appealing overture. The backbone of the experience, however, is injera, the spongy, pliant Ethiopian bread that plays a crucial role in many meals. At Kaffa, it’s an addictive miracle, hearty but not heavy and kissed with a vaguely sour note that brings even more life to food scooped up with it.

Injera also plays more integrated roles in certain dishes, to equally stunning effect. Timatim fitfit—essentially an injera salad, sort of an Ethiopian panzanella—accompanied thumbnail-sized pieces of it with tomatoes, onions, jalapeños, and a bracingly bright dressing that ratcheted up the injera’s tanginess.

Injera wrap was straightforward, a large round of the bread that had been painted with red lentils and rolled up. But in this seeming simplicity an entirely new textural aspect of the injera was brought to the fore, a beautiful sponginess that was equal parts springy and giving. Here, the lentils were the conduit through which the injera sang most clearly.

Lentils played the starring role, however, in misir wot—the garlic, ginger and chili pepper of the berbere seasoning punching up the lentil stew's sweet-smoky flavors.

On the other end of the legume spectrum was kik aletcha wot, a sunny yellow split-pea stew whose more obvious sweetness was expertly balanced by a deep earthy funk. It’s enough to make you regret every sad, mushy bowlful of split-pea soup you ever suffered through as a child: Who knew these humble little nuggets could be so sexy?

Tikel gomen—ginger-kissed cabbage and carrots—was more familiar but no less pleasant; collard greens, despite their seasoning with garlic, tomato, jalapeño and onion, still managed a real sense of subtlety.

Kitfo, like an Ethiopian beef tartare, was all silky textures from the fine chopping and miraculously subtle spice heat from its seasoning with mitmita, the cardamom- and salt-reinforced birdseye chili powder that’s such an important player in this cuisine.

Other preparations threw familiar ingredients into a brand new light. Softly spicy yebeg tibs—which on paper is nothing more than cubed, sauteed lamb with butter, onions, jalapenos, tomatoes and whisper-thin slices of onion—was lifted by that wonderful berbere, though here it lent a nutty character to the dish. (A milder version, minus the berbere, is also available.)

All of these entrees were served on a single large, injera-lined dish, which makes for one of the most civilized versions of family-style dining you can imagine. It’s also one of the more visually stunning—with the sunset reds and yellows of the lentils and split peas, the nut-tones of the lamb, the fire of the kitfo, the dun-like tan of the injera, the food is as appealing to the eyes as it is to the palate.

Kaffa Crossing is an all-day spot, with an appealing breakfast menu, well-prepared coffee and a vibe more coffee shop than restaurant. And that’s part of its appeal: Food this flat-out good needs no pretense or unnecessary flourishes. That glowing window and the warmth its conveys are as true an advertisement for the experience inside as any.

4423 Chestnut St., 215.386.0504
Cuisine:
Ethiopian.
Hours: Mon.-Fri., 9am-9pm; Sat., 10am-10pm; Sun., 10am-9pm.
Prices: $1.35 (for a small coffee)-$11.
Atmosphere:
A laid-back cafe in a well-loved space.
Service:
Very warm and justifiably proud.
Food: Thoroughly delicious

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