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Queen of Sheba
*** 1/2
Out of a possible five
The vegetable combo atop an injera bread-covered platter

Ethiopian food treat for senses

When Queen of Sheba Restaurant opened along East State Boulevard, I was thrilled to hear the exotic and delicious flavors of Ethiopia were coming back to Fort Wayne, and in a familiar spot.

Queen of Sheba is in the same space, in the same strip mall, near Parkview Hospital on East State Boulevard, where the Ethiopian Restaurant served customers before closing in 2009. Not only does Queen of Sheba have the same address, it looks similar with a handful of tables and a smattering of Ethiopian posters, musical instruments and artwork on the walls.

One of the owners, Saba Marcos, moved to Fort Wayne a year ago and didn’t even know the space once housed an Ethiopian eatery until one of the first customers told her. Marcos’ partner, Senait Gonfa, who has lived here eight years, did visit Ethiopian Restaurant a couple of times and said she always wondered why it closed.

For those of us who fell in love with the uniqueness of this cuisine, the pair’s decision to give it another whirl is a blessing.

The first item I looked for on Queen of Sheba’s menu was the Ethiopian coffee.

Raw beans imported from Ethiopia were roasted, brewed and served in ceremonial fashion. They were placed in a pan and roasted over a flame at a special table in the back of the dining room. Gonfa shook and tossed the beans delicately so they didn’t scorch, filling the tiny restaurant with its enticing aroma.

The beans were ground and placed in a decorative Ethiopian pot with hot water. The round-bottomed pot was placed atop a decorative ring holder at an angle so that the grounds settled, and a few coals of frankincense were lit and placed on a tray next to it. The frankincense added to the intoxicating aromas and really made me feel like I was experiencing something special.

The coffee was special, too. It is very strong but also smooth and not at all bitter. I finished every drop of the smooth brew from the pot and wanted more.

If you don’t want to be left wanting more and want to try nearly everything Queen of Sheba offers, order a meat combo and a vegetarian combo. The meat combo included four meats of your choice and the vegetarian included small servings of all of the vegetarian dishes.

The large, round vegetable tray was stunning. It had traditional Ethiopian injera bread covering its top with piles of each vegetable dish arranged on top of it. Injera is a spongy, soft, moist bread with some sour notes that diners are supposed to tear away with their right hand and use to grab the vegetables. But don’t worry, flatware is provided in case you don’t want to use your hand.

My favorite vegetable dish was the miser wat – split lentils cooked with garlic, onions, olive oil and hot sauce. The texture of this red mixture was similar to refried beans only chunkier, and the spicy-sweet flavor was wonderful with the tender legumes. The yellow miser alicha – lentils marinated in ginger, garlic, olive oil and curry – had the same texture and a more timid flavor.

There were also some stewed collard greens and two potato and carrot dishes – one with string beans cooked in a tomato sauce (foosolia) and another with cabbage in garlic, ginger and curry (tikil gomen). All were flavorful, but the cabbage won me over.

The meat combo came in a four-bowl serving stand with injera on the side. It included:

•Lega tibs – Leg of lamb with onions, garlic, tomatoes, green peppers and spices

•Beef tibs – Strips of rib-eye with garlic, black pepper, onions, green peppers and a little rosemary

•Doro kay wat – Chicken leg in spicy sauce with a hard-boiled egg

•Kitfo – Ground beef sautéed in clarified butter and Ethiopian chili powder.

The leg of lamb was exquisite. Each chunk was super tender, its lamb flavor was not too strong and it perfectly picked up the sweetness of the vegetables. It was so good that I almost wished I had four servings of it.

The beef tibs were similar in makeup, but a bit tougher and drier. The mix reminded me of a Mexican beef fajita and would be a great option for someone who was a bit shy about trying this kind of food.

The chicken wat also had some Mexican-type flavors with its rich, spicy, red gravy that sort of reminded me of an adobo sauce. That sauce cooked the leg down so it was falling off the bone, but the boiled egg was the best part, and I could have easily eaten three more.

The kitfo was my least favorite component. It was basically dry ground beef with some herbaceous qualities that did not pack the punch of the other meats.

I had the siga wat – cubed beef prepared the same way as the chicken wat – for lunch during one visit and ordered it spicy. The beef was more tender when cooked in the sauce than it was in the tibs, and having it spicy was a great choice.

The Ezekiel soup was a nice find. A greenish broth contained 16 types of beans and grains. I spotted kidney, lima, Navy and black beans and barley, but gave up trying to identify them all after that. It badly needed salt, but all of the legumes were al dente, the grains gave it a nice texture and it was nicely spice infused.

The first thing I tried at Queen of Sheba was the only thing I could say was not worth trying again. The yesiga sambusa were pastry shells filled with ground beef, scallions and peppers and then fried until crisp. The beef was similar if not the same beef kitfo I did not like. But even then I couldn’t stay too disappointed.

Marcos told me to try the ye’misir sambusa, which are filled with lentils instead of beef, next time because they are much better. A few minutes later, she returned from the kitchen with one of the lentil-filled pastries – which was, indeed, much tastier – for me to try on the house.

It was that kind of caring that really made Queen of Sheba stand out. The service was a bit deliberate as Marcos and Gonfa are basically working alone to do it all, but they were clearly appreciative. Whether it was the free pastry, the pride with which they served the Ethiopian coffee or the time they spent showing some elementary-aged customers the Ethiopian alphabet poster hanging on one wall, they seem to love what they were doing and loved sharing their culture.

Combine that with the unique and flavorful food that was really fun to share and you have a winner. And it is a winner that I can only hope sticks around this time.

Restaurant: Queen of Sheba

Address: 2805 E. State Blvd.

Phone: 498-7862

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday

Cuisine: Ethiopian

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: None

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Meat combo ($35), vegetable combo ($15), siga wat ($8), kitfo ($13), beef tibs ($10), lega tibs ($15), chicken wat ($14), Ezekiel stew ($7), sambusa ($2 lentils; $3 meat), coffee ($3)

Rating breakdown: Food: ** 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 0 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.