Time well spent

No need to hurry at Dayton’s Nanya’s Café

Photo: Mixed combo platter and Kiitfo from Nanya’s Cafe

By Paula Johnson

I had a most unique and amazing dining experience recently at Nanya’s Café and I can’t wait to tell you about this place. And to tell you not to go. Seriously, don’t. That is unless you do what owner Sofi Kinde asks. Make a reservation. Please. And here’s why: Nanya’s Café, the area’s only Ethiopian restaurant, is basically a two-person operation with a tiny seating capacity. It’s is a family operation, named for Kinde’s mother. Her cousin does all the cooking. Kinde told me she knows she’s already outgrown her space. “I’m looking at places closer to the city. I know I will have to move soon.” If you show up without a reservation at peak dining times on the weekend, you will be turned away. “After we were mentioned on social media recently, that’s what happened. So many people came and we just couldn’t serve them,” Kinde says with a note of frustration. “But we are open early for late breakfast and lunch, and also on Sunday,” she emphasizes. “I would love people to think about visiting us during those times.”

No forks to give

I was over the moon to learn that Dayton finally had Ethiopian cuisine (The closest places I’d found are in Cincinnati). I’ve been a fan for years, and was fortunate enough to live near two terrific places and have also experienced it in New York and Washington DC. What makes Ethiopian dining unique? It’s completely communal. Everything is served together on a platter roughly the size of an automobile tire. There is no silverware. Food is eaten with the right hand only by using pieces of injera, a spongy bread made from the fermented flour from a grain known as teff. It’s an immediate and tactile experience that makes you aware of every bite you take. Or every bite you give. That’s gursa, a tradition central to Ethiopian dining culture. It’s the intimate and respectful act of feeding other diners with a morsel of injera wrapped food (with your right hand of course). It’s a gesture of honor to bestow, and humility to receive, so don’t even think about doing that wedding cake smashing thing. As if. Spices responsible for the flavor profile of Ethiopian cuisine include chili peppers of various kinds, ginger, garlic, cardamom, cloves, and cumin to name a few. Two common seasoning mixes are featured in many dishes: berbere, a chili pepper spice mix, and bright orange colored mitmita, made from ground birdseye chilis, cardamom, salt, and cloves. (In spite of the presence of chili peppers not all dishes are hot). Kibe, a clarified spice infused butter, is also found in a good many dishes.

Wat’s up

So now you know a little about the cuisine. Next is how and what to order. Nanya’s Café offers less than a dozen non-breakfast items (there are seven of those) so the most effective way both in terms of cost and variety is to order a combination platter. Two meat choices and three vegetables ($36), or full vegetarian are the combo options. We went with Chicken Tibs and Tibs Wat as our meat choices. (Tibs refers to chunks of sauteed meat, Wat refers to stew.) The chicken featured spinach, onion, tomato, jalapeno, and kibe with spices. The Wat was beef seasoned with berbere sauce. Our vegetables included red lentils (misir) with berbere sauce and garlic, a powdered chickpea dish (tegabino shiro) with onion, tomato, and jalapeno plus some collards, carrots, and beans. Baskets of rolled injera “crepes” are presented for diners to scoop with. It was a festival of colors and flavors, with the slightly sour and tangy injera lining the platter and serving as a platform for all of the stews and vegetable dishes heaped on top. One of the greatest pleasures is eating the flavor soaked injera that’s left on the platter at the end when the food is eaten.

We added two additional dishes, a favorite of mine, Kitfo ($13), tender raw beef minced and marinated in mitmita, a sort of Ethiopian tartar, and Gomen be Siga ($8). The Gomen be Siga was at the urging of owner Sofi, when I asked what dish she felt was a must try – collard greens and beef simmered in a peppery spicy broth soup. We couldn’t get enough of it. For me it ranked up there with spicy soup favorite pho with its deeply savory soul-satisfying broth. Everything we tried was a delight, and it was hard to pick a favorite.

I mentioned breakfast offerings, and in spite of my familiarity with dinner dishes, these were all new to me. The most common breakfast is Kinche ($6). The equivalent of oatmeal, it’s made from cracked wheat braised with kibe. There’s also Ful ($7), which is spiced mashed fava beans with onion, tomato, and jalapeno, and Chechebsa ($60), hand torn pieces of flat bread mixed with kibe and berbere and served with sour cream. I can’t wait to return to try these dishes. Though breakfast and lunch are less busy times, I still plan to call first. I want to stay on Sofi Kinde’s good side.

Nanya’s Cafe: 99%
Cuisine 49%
Value 25%
Service 25%

Nanya’s Café is located at 5214 N. Main St. in Dayton. For more information call 937.396.4013

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Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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