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Monday, November 23, 2015

Massawa Ethiopian Arrives In North Beach's Little Italy

Posted By on Mon, Nov 23, 2015 at 2:30 PM

Vegetarian Sampler at Massawa - TREVOR FELCH
  • Trevor Felch
  • Vegetarian Sampler at Massawa

We briefly interrupt the turkey and pumpkin pie 24 hour coverage to discuss okra. And injera. And a newly reopened, relocated Ethiopian restaurant in one of the more unlikely neighborhoods of San Francisco you would expect to find one.

Formerly in the Upper Haight, Massawa is now slightly off the main drag in North Beach, where most establishments are old-school Italian joints, restaurants catering to the post-bar munchies, and the bars that cause said munchies. Massawa is right next door to Golden Boy, arguably our city’s premier address for Sicilian focaccia square pizza by the slice. Combine the injera at Massawa and the slices at Golden Boy, and my goodness is that a dynamic carbs duo, or what.

As a quick refresher, injera is the basis of an Ethiopian meal, a thin, spongy, crêpe-like bread made of the grain “teff” that functions as your fork, spoon, knife, and sometimes plate. Unlike at most Ethiopian restaurants I’ve visited, Massawa didn’t serve my entrée on a plate covered with injera (but I believe this is only the case for the smaller serving lunch specials).

Massawa’s menu is much more extensive than many of its peers, yet injera is obligatory. "Kitfo," a hot pepper-influenced beef tartare, is always a must-try. Strangely, half the menu is devoted to pasta and American diner favorites. Hummus is even a starter. Build your own omelets or pancakes for brunch? Cheeseburger, hot wings, and onion rings? You got it, just not meant for injera. Breakfast features Ethiopian and American dishes, served all day. Score one for fava beans with tomato and hard-boiled eggs or French toast on one single menu.

  • Trevor Felch

However, as anyone who has been to an Ethiopian restaurant knows, the high points of the menu are the vibrant vegetarian dishes, best enjoyed in a trio sampler ($14 at dinner, $10 for lunch special). Okra(!) is the highlight, bathing in an alluring berbere-spiced tomato sauce that complements zucchini. Next door are soft potatoes and carrots in the yellow curry-fueled “veggie alicha.” Lastly, spinach and collard greens get beautifully sautéed with onions, garlic, and tomatoes. The spices weren’t quite as pronounced, and the sauces slightly more soupy than thick and tidy than at Tadu, what I’d consider the city’s Ethiopian gold standard. But alas, the sampler still provides a most enjoyable meal with who-knows-how-much injera consumed. It’s great to see Massawa find a home again, five years after owner Asmerom Ghebrmicael was displaced by the city for the expansion of Gus’ Community Market/Haight Street Market’s expansion in 2010. The new Massawa (in the former HRD Smokin’ Grill) has wooden picnic benches, an open kitchen and eye-catching traditional woven baskets as wall décor. My meal included a substantial wait between ordering and eating but I felt terrible for manager Teshome Fedai who had to tend to a capacity 50 seat lunch rush with just one other chef after two workers failed to show up. This is not an uncommon experience either, per my meals out recently. [Insert San Francisco tech economy/rent prices comment.]

Fedai really has a heart of gold for how he made it through this, and the restaurant is clearly a welcoming spot that feels already at home in the neighborhood. And the gender-neutral bathroom even reminds members of the masculine gender to kindly aim when firing. Having kitfo on injera might seem more out of the ordinary at this address than spaghetti or cioppino but after seeing that sign, I remembered that this was very much still North Beach.

Massawa, 532 Green, 415-621-4129.

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Trevor Felch


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