Not long after we made the move to Alexandria, we got a call from our friends Itty Bitty Betty and the Bacon Terrorist.  They were inviting us out for Ethiopian at Meaza – taking full advantage of my recent conversion from injera-phobe to kitfo enthusiast.  They’ve been in the ‘burbs longer than we have, so we took them up on the offer.

But we had our doubts.  After all, we’ve had some pretty darn good Ethiopian along 9th and U Streets.  What could a place on Columbia Pike show us that we hadn’t already loved at the likes of Etete, Dukem and Gondar at Almaz?

As it turns out, Meaza had plenty to offer, and the food was only part of the package.  Sure, we worked our way through a feast of epic proportions, which is not unusual when ordering as a group at Ethiopian restaurants, as we’ve learned.  But we also marveled at a restaurant of similarly oversized capacity and some of its unexpected amenities.  And we made a note to pay another visit when the attached cafe, market and butcher shop are open.

An Ethiopian experience worth the drive to <gasp!> Falls Church after the jump.

One of the first things that you’ll notice about Meaza when you arrive is its sheer size.  The main dining room is laid out like a dinner theater, with tables on multiple levels leading up to a sleek, modern-looking bar.  Along the right-hand wall, traditional portraits of Ethiopian rulers adorn canvases made from stretched animal skins.  The left-hand wall of the main dining room is merely a partition separating the space from a second, equally large room that was set up for some kind of party or reception.

Meaza’s website boasts their “large banquet hall holds 150 for meetings, film screenings, weddings, etc.”  Although they weren’t doing that kind of entertaining while we visited, we were impressed to see the crowd continue to grow as the evening wore on.

We’ve learned from experience that Ethiopian entrees tend to provide more than enough meat to satisfy a single diner, especially when you factor in the injera, the spongy bread used to scoop everything up.  So we ordered strategically, selecting three meat dishes among our foursome.  We were sure to supplement them with a vegetarian combo.

As good as Ethiopian entrees may be, they really do suffer without the vegetarian combo to act as a platter of sides.  At Meaza, the “Special Vegi Combo” offers a traditional array, including lentils, peas, cabbage, and shiro (powdered, spiced peas).  It also introduced us to a tomato salad known as timatim fitfit, which has the distinction of being the most fun dish to order by name that I’ve encountered in a long time.

For our entrees, we took our cues from the Meaza butcher shop and stuck with beef and lamb.  No Ethiopian meal is complete in my book without a taste of kitfo, so we were sure to order some of the fiery, raw ground beef.  It was a brilliant red when it arrived as a result of the mitmita spice blend that also gives it its signature heat.  There’s something primal about the dish, something that makes you want it.  Go with that instinct, evolution be damned.

In addition to the kitfo we were sure to get an order of lamb tibs, a dish of marinated, cubed lamb cooked with tomato, garlic, onion and peppers.  They were tender and tasty, combining the traditional flavors of the Mediterranean with the spices of East Africa.  We made short work of them, tucking the cubes into pieces of torn injera with a small scoop of lentils or some chopped tomato.

To go with our meal we enjoyed a couple of Ethiopian beers: St. George and Harrar.  Both are available elsewhere, and they provide welcome (if unremarkable) refreshment from the spice of the meal.  That chic-looking bar is also ready and waiting, if you decide you want something a little bit stronger and less traditional.

We were disappointed that the Meaza Market was already closed by the time we arrived.  Many of the spices and special ingredients used in Ethiopian cooking can be purchased there, and even a cursory glance through the front window showed plenty of unique ingredients just begging to be taken home and tested.

I guess we’ll just have to use that as our excuse to go back…as if we needed one.

5700 Columbia Pike
Arlington / Falls Church, VA
Meaza Ethiopian on Urbanspoon