Arada: A Gem of Transplanted Cuisine
COMBINES SPICE, FINGER FOOD
Tucked away in the heart of the Santa Fe Arts District, Arada Ethiopian Restaurant offers a tasty experience that combines East African flavor with America’s favorite eating utensils: fingers. Arada was labeled Westword’s “Best African Restaurant” back in 2008 and has earned a slew of food culture awards from The Denver Channel, Rocky Mountain News, and 5280 for its exotic fare ever since.
Ethiopian cuisine is heavily influenced by Middle Eastern flavors and cooking styles, and Arada boasts a menu filled with spicy Yemeni stews (called wots) and traditional African bean and meat dishes. Eating is a communal activity, and food is served family-style on a large platter, one entree next to another, alongside bread salad (a zesty cold dish), tomato salad, and rolls of injera (a soft, spongy, tortilla-like bread). Patrons tear off a piece of injera and scoop away at sauces, stews, and salads. For the faint of fingers, silverware and napkins are available upon request.
Arada offers a wide selection of carbonated beverages, teas, juices, and alcohols, including Ethiopian Honey Wine ($5.50). Beverages are served in engraved glass goblets, a staple of central African specialty dining.
The atmosphere at Arada is a pleasant, quiet one, perfect for a lunch date or a break from gallery-browsing. The tables, decorated with knotted weave tablecloths embroidered with fanciful designs, are small enough to afford some privacy. The brightly colored walls are hung with woven baskets, worked cowhide pouches, and stringed instruments that resemble mandolins and lutes. Arabic house music, new Swahili R&B, and peppy calypso choir tunes offer a respite from generic radio pop that most restaurants employ as background noise.
Ethiopia’s official language is Amharic, an Arab-Semitic language similar to Arabic and Turkish. “Arada” means “in between,” and the restaurant provides a liminal dining experience that informs one of the biggest problems owners face in opening a restaurant in a foreign country: recreating an authentic taste. Basic ingredients vary in taste and texture from country to country, and a dish seasoned with fresh Bangla bay leaves is not going to taste the same when the bay leaves are grown by a different manufacturer in Columbia and freighted up to Colorado.
Arada encounters the same problem: several of its dishes taste like transplants that are still getting used to Colorado air. The Yebeg Siga Alitcha dish ($11.95) is a thick, tasty lamb stew that only just misses the mark of gamey satisfaction by relying too much on saturated ginger spice to carry the flavor of lamb: a problem that probably wouldn’t exist back in Addis Ababa, where locally-grown ginger root has a milder, sweeter taste.
However, beyond a couple dishes still en route to excellence, Arada’s offered fare is splendid. The Siga Wot ($11.95) is a tender beef stew braised in seasoned red pepper sauce. Kitfo ($12.95) is a hearty dish of beef and homemade cottage cheese, which pairs well with injera and a cool glass of mango juice ($2). Arada also has a menu vegetarian salads and stews, like the savory potato and carrot dish Yatakilt Alitcha ($9.95), richly seasoned with fresh garlic.
Arada is a welcoming slice of Ethiopian culture that Denver is genuinely honored to host. If you enjoy sharing food with your mates, licking really good spice-sauce off your wrist, and listening to the latest Ethiopian house music, get down to Arada and experience a pungent world of East Africa taste.