- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 30, 2001

The name of this year-old restaurant in Arlington is the same as the first name of its owner, and rightly so, because most of what is remarkable about the place stems from the personality and drive of Ethiopian-born Meaza Zeweda.
Determined to open a resource for Ethiopians in the area that would serve familiar food from authentic ingredients, Ms. Zeweda a former hostess at the Hyatt Regency Hotel who later had a restaurant on 14th Street NW with her then-husband moved to bustling Columbia Pike in Arlington. She knew that to be successful, she also would have to offer a retail grocery where local cooks could get the necessary but hard-to-find ingredients for native dishes.
Thus was born Meaza: International Market/Restaurant in a nondescript mall spot easily missed by people rushing past on their way to Baileys Crossroads or to other equally small shopping outlets in the area. Her next-door neighbors are a beauty salon and an Army-Navy recruiting station.
The restaurant is as unpretentious indoors as it is out. Step through the door, and you are in the grocery by the cashier's counter. A butcher is at work in the kitchen behind the delicatessen case. The dining room is on the left, its tables covered with white linen cloths and burgundy napkins.
A pleasant smell of incense is in the air. Fresh carnations in a vase on each table help distract from a slightly frayed carpet. A television set is turned on low above the bar in an elevated section in the rear.
A side wall celebrates Ethiopia's royal heritage with framed photographs of its royalty as well as a photo of one of the most sacred landmarks of Ms. Zeweda's homeland, the palace of the kings, all marked by large burgundy bows.
Now a U.S. citizen, Ms. Zeweda clearly has targeted an Amharic-speaking population as her customer base. When we visited one Friday night, the waitress seemed to have little knowledge of English or to be fully aware of what the kitchen offered a language problem, no doubt.
Some rough spots need to be ironed out before customers whose primary language is English feel comfortable here. "What I do is what I can do," Ms. Zeweda says, meaning she has plans to improve matters in the future.
Offerings on the menu we saw were written first in Amharic with the equivalent English translation second. That was followed, in most cases, by a brief explanation of each dish. There were a few lapses. The explanation for No. 17, "Shero," listed with the beef and lamb dishes, was missing, as were the explanations for the entire vegetarian section.
The latter was confusing. Six items, separately numbered but not described, indicated a total price of $8.99. "All of the above comes with two items of your choice as a side order with full order," a statement read.
All will be revealed if Ms. Zeweda is on the premises to guide you. She has a solid command of Ethiopian food lore and doesn't mind explaining the origins of her specialties. She claims to be the only source locally for the dark grain called teff that is grown only in high altitudes. It is the preferred grain for making the large, pancakelike injera bread that underlies or else just accompanies every entree.
Patrons wanting the teff injera must request it; otherwise they are served the less-enticing teff-and-white-flour version, the basic injera.
Ms. Zeweda has found farmers in Idaho to grow the teff and sell it to her directly so she and another cook present can keep an ample supply of Ethiopian bread on hand. She says she also supplies other Ethiopian restaurants in the region.
Ms. Zeweda also has on hand off the menu a special tea made from dried seeds imported from Ethiopia. The "regular" tea is flavored with cardamom and herbs. A ginger-flavored tea also is available. These are in addition to the coffees (regular, cappuccino and espresso) for no more than $1.75 each. Remember that the Italians colonized Ethiopia for a long spell, leaving a coffee industry as one of the legacies.
The only wine available by the glass is a merlot at $3.50. A bottle of Ethiopian wine, a honey-mead concoction, sells for $20. Our waitress didn't mention either option on our first visit, so we settled for beer. The menu then had no information on alcoholic drinks either by name or price.
Meaza's dessert selections are tiramisu and two other somewhat disappointing Italian offerings. These are made by an outside bakery and seemed somewhat dry compared to what is available in Italian restaurants.
Sambusas are among the few appetizers, but the quality of these wrapped and fried combination of lentils, onions and green peppers is uneven.
The restaurant's strong points are its entrees, especially the best-known meats and vegetables served with the injera bread atop round metal trays. Portions are decidedly larger than those found at many other Ethiopian restaurants, and the offerings are consistently tasty.
In keeping with native custom, juice drinks come with a straw whose top is covered with a tiny paper cap. (To show it has not been used previously.) Diners traditionally scoop portions of the food into pieces of the injera, but silverware is available for the asking.
Weekend evenings, a sort of Ethiopian pop music is played on a miniature Yamaha piano. The action picks up later in the evening after 11 p.m.
A late-night party was held recently for someone who had just been released from jail in Ethiopia after serving time as an opponent of the current political regime.
To really go native, a diner would chose the kitfo special, which is the Ethiopian version of steak tartare. It is seasoned with "special Ethiopian butter and home made cheese," paprika and salt. We opted instead for the doro wat, a spiced chicken leg, and tibs fitfit, very spicy lamb cubes, to accompany the vegetables.
And what vegetables. The yellow peas, red lentils, green collards, sauteed cabbage and a tomato-and-onion salad were delights, each complementing the other in taste and color. Garlic and two kinds of red pepper commonly are used along with jalapeno peppers.
The lamb tasted tough, we said, so the waiter offered to exchange it for another dish. Ms. Zeweda explained later that the meat was tough was because many native Ethiopians like it well done so they can chew it. To have tender lamb, she said, one should ask for it medium rare.
Her special dishes include fish dulet, a diced red snapper full of jalapeno pepper bits that she believes substitutes well for the meat forbidden to Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia during their 55-day-long Lent. During this period, the faithful can eat no butter, milk, meat or chicken, but they are allowed fish. Don't feel too sorry for them: Regular staples include 14 kinds of vegetables prepared in different ways.
RESTAURANT: Meaza: International Market/Restaurant, 5440-42 Columbia Pike (at Greenbrier Street), Arlington; 703/820-2870 or 2872
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Sunday
COST: Appetizers $1.50 to $5.50; beef and lamb entrees $7.99 to $10.99; fish dishes $7.99 to $9.99; vegetarian dishes $8.99; special menu marked "Hot Dishes," more American in taste, costs $4.95 to $8.95; desserts $2.50 and $2.75; coffee and tea $1, except cappuccino and espresso $1.75 and $1.50); juices $1.50; bottled water $2
CREDIT CARDS: All credit cards
PARKING: Street
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes


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