An East African Primer at Dahlak
by Iris McCarthy
This Cedar Park restaurant and bar is often overshadowed by its Ethiopian cousins in the West Philly neighborhood, but it’s no less noteworthy. Technically, Dahlak’s menu leans more toward Eritrean cuisine, which closely resembles that of neighboring Ethiopia, but the differences are barely discernible. As is customary with East African cuisine, most food is served with injera (traditional spongy, slightly sour flatbread), is communal, and meant to be eaten by hand, which makes for a relaxed, if not a little messy, dining experience.
The meat-focused dishes here are solid, but, in terms of taste and preparation, it’s really all about the vegetables. Impressively done lentils, collard greens with potatoes, and chickpeas are tasty, but if you’re a spice seeker, the promise of even the spiciest dish can be disappointing as the heat levels are unfortunately inconsistent. A customary dish of doro wat—a spicy tomato-based stew—awoke the senses and quelled all speculation of a light-handed chef when it arrived perfectly seasoned with yielding pieces of chicken commingled in a fiery, complex Berbere sauce. For the uninitiated, Berbere is the sriracha of East Africa. A unique hodgepodge of herbs and spices like chilies, fenugreek, basil, ginger, garlic, and a handful of indigenous plants, it is as ubiquitous in the far-flung countries of the Horn of Africa as ketchup is here in the States.
Surprisingly, beets make an appearance on the menu and offer an unexpected but welcome change to traditional notions of African cooking. If you’re looking for libations, head to the bar in the back, where inexpensive happy hour specials draw neighborhood crowds and where interesting hot toddies are the perfect answer to a Philly winter. On warmer nights, head out back to a small patio area (which, admittedly, looks more like a cramped backyard than an outdoor bar space) for mingling and drinks.
To peruse their menu and learn more, check out www.dahlakrestaurant.com, or call (215) 726-6464 to make a reservation.
Photo courtesy of Dahlak Restaurant.