Asmara RestaurantCambridge, MARestaurant
3 Star Restaurant (our ratings)
A unique cuisine that tastes just like home
Review by Johnny Monsarrat
Here’s a fun fact about Amara Restaurant: it’s not Ethiopean. It’s Eritrean.
“But of course, it’s Ethiopean, too.” says Lettensa Afeworki, the owner who opened the place in Cambridge in 1986, before the area’s other Ethiopean restaurant, Addis Red Sea. Eritrea was part of Ethiopea before independence and they share the same culture. They were also once a colony of Italy! So the original menu at Amara was half Italian food such as spaghetti and meatballs. “But people just laughed at us,” Lettensa says. “We had to remove that part of the menu.”
The place is a midclass restaurant, and there’s nothing outstanding about its decor. It’s bright and the lighting is basic, with overhead fluorescent bulbs like it’s an office. It seats 47 indoors and has outdoor seating in warm weather.
The list of entrees is small: there are 14 of them, between $13 and $16, which fits on one page, like the beer and wine list. But you don’t really go to Asmara for the entrees, at least not the first time. You go for the combination meal, which include shrimp, chicken, lamb, and collard green salad.
It’s an experience. First you’re served a hot towel (you know that hot water is not enough to sanitize your hands, right?), and then served a giant family-style platter with tappas-sized dishes on a huge layer of bread called injeria. Their bread is fermented in water overnight and is gluten-free, making it a favorite for those with wheat allergies. You get bread on the side, too, and you eat without utensils, by scooping the food up in slices of bread. The bread is like a very soft pita bread, easy to chew and which readily falls apart in your hands.
That being said, the food is surprisingly normal, hearty in a classic Italian American way. To my mainstream white boy sensibility, it’s not so much unusual in how it tastes but in the way its prepared and served. For example, the chicken tastes baked and tomatoey. There are great chunks of not overcooked potato and carrot that still have some bite. It reminds me of the crock pot style of my upbringing, but Lettensa says that everything is steamed here, not stewed. And they only use olive oil. I actually can believe that the food here is healthy (like almost no restaurant food is).
The salad comes with feta cheese, lemon, and vinegar, though I wasn’t fond of the onion in the salad, which a sharp flavor that contrasts with the mellow. But I loved the spinach, cooked thoroughly into almost a stew, which was perhaps my favorite of the combination. The beef was weirdly familiar, tasting like beef stroganoff.
In all, the experience was unusual and relaxing, while going well beyond “somewhat accessible” that most ethnic restaurants bring. While you can find some surprises — they make a traditional honey wine with raisin and hops for example — the keyword for Asmara Restaurant is relaxation.
“We want to make them relax and show them our culture,” Lettensa says, whose family encouraged her to start a restaurant because she was so enthused about cooking. They leave a pitcher of water on the table so you don’t worry about water. They have a television, but only for showing Eritrean song & dance — they are not a sports bar.
I felt at home, and you will too. Asmara Restaurant is a unique experience that is familiar at the same time. That being said, there were quite a few fruit flies, and with the food that wasn’t exceptional in its taste or price, and lackluster decor, I must give it a solid rather than the highest rating. You should definitely try it at least once and decide for yourself.
739 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge MA
Monday – Thursday: 11:30am-3pm, 5pm-10:30pm