Being the only Eritrean-Ethiopian restaurant in Central Square — heck, one of only a few in Greater Boston — you’d think that the owners of Asmara would have a tough time selling their wares. Cosmopolitan Eritreophiles and Ethiopian ex-pats are hardly the predominant demographic in Cambridge. So what is it that’s kept Asmara’s doors open for more than 20 years? In a word: wat — East Africa’s version of curry.
Begeeh mloukhiya ($14.95) consists of tender lamb cooked in a lightly fermented red-pepper sauce. Thick and heady, it’s best washed down with copious amounts of sweet, sour, and refreshing tej ($25/pitcher), a homemade honey wine. The Asmara tibsy ($14.25) is one of the house-proclaimed specialties, and rightly so. Cubes of marinated beef tenderloin sautéed in spiced butter make up for their relative dryness from onion, green-pepper, and chili-flavor overload. Also suffering from a mild case of the dry-but-tasties, the boneless garlic-and-herb-marinated chicken in tomato and red-pepper stew ($14.95) offers a milder option for the capsicum-sensitive.
Two hundred and eight meat-free fasting days on the Coptic calendar mean Ethiopian chefs have a high regard for vegan cuisine. The alitcha ahmilti ($14.50) is a curry made with 10 different vegetables cooked in a vinegary yellow sauce until meltingly tender. Or go the completely opposite route with the aptly named gored gored ($14.25). Warm, buttery, spicy, and completely raw, this Ethiopian steak tartare is a carnivore’s ultimate indulgence.
Best enjoyed with a large group of friends, every generous dish is served family-style on rounds of injera (the national flatbread), which is torn a corner at a time and used to pick up bite-size portions of the wats that rest in its center. With the texture of a spongy crêpe and the flavor of heady sourdough, this edible utensil will leave you wondering why anyone ever felt the need to invent the fork.
Asmara, located at 739 Mass Ave, in Cambridge, is open Monday through Thursday, from 11:30 am to 10:30 pm; on Friday and Saturday, from 11:30 am to 11:30 pm; and on Sunday, from 4 to 10:30 pm. Call 617.864.7447.