Warka Serves Authentic Fare Despite Decor
I’ve never had a server look at me with an expression of pity and concern and say, “I don’t think you want that.” I found myself challenged at Warka, an Ethiopian restaurant in Herndon, and I never back down to a challenge.
The décor of the restaurant is reminiscent of Barbie’s dream house meets the copy room at the office. Bright pink walls, drop-ceilings and fluorescent lighting don’t suggest a romantic evening — not one that works out well at least. I soon found out I fell in love with the delectable tastes of Ethiopian cuisine despite the décor.
We ordered the combination platter for two, an assortment of meat and vegetarian dishes to share, all ladled onto a circular sheet of injera, Ethiopian bread. The combination platter included an assortment of Ethiopian stews and salads meant to be shared by using the injera to scoop up morsels of food by hand. The grass-based bread resembles a large, slightly sour, soft crepe.
Using the injera, we scooped up rich lamb stew, savory lentils and creamy yellow peas. The lamb was seared and decidedly spiced, tossed with roasted tomatoes and caramelized peppers. The lamb stew was simmered in a ruby red paste of spices for hours, rendering it wonderfully rich. The peas and lentils with their subdued flavors complimented and rounded out the spices of the meats. Additionally balancing to the meats were sautéed collard greens, diced cabbage salad and crisp green beans.
We began to make our server nervous when we ordered quantan firfir and kitfo to share. Quantan firfir, true Ethiopian comfort food, is a dish of dried beef simmered in a berbere spice rich sauce and tossed with shredded pieces yesterday’s injera. The beef was chewy and flavorful, reminiscent of beef jerky. The notes of ginger, cayenne, cinnamon and clove were smoky, dark and exotic. I proudly fed it to my one year old while the server watched out of the corner of her eye.
Kitfo is raw beef melded together by clarified butter and spices. The server asked us if we wanted our meat cooked a little. Mind you, kitfo is the Ethiopian version of tartar and the French have beheaded people for less. We ate it raw, and it was divine. The fresh mineral taste of the raw beef was beautifully complimented by the rich butter and toasty spices. The beef was soft, fresh and delicious, leaving me wondering why we humans bothered to cook meat at all.
They had a variety of Ethiopian beers and wines available. But when I inquired about desserts, they offered baklava and cheesecake. I asked the server what a typical Ethiopian dessert might be. The server smiled and, remembering a home far away, replied that Ethiopia was known for its honey. As we dined, we watched unending lines of friends and neighbors picking up to-go orders, exchanging hugs and pleasantries with one another. I realized that’s just what Warka is for so many in Northern Virginia: a taste of home. We left delighted, planning out next trip back, and wondering if we would ever get a taste of that honey.
Warka is located at 275 Sunset Park Drive, Herndon and is open 10 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Diana Veseth-Nelson is a self-described food fanatic. Unrelenting in her pursuit of fabulous food, her current favorites include roasted guinea pig from a local Salvadorean crockpot and truffled popcorn — although she cautions against pairing them together.