Enat Ethiopian Restaurant, located near the eastern end of The Plaza at the intersection of Eastway Drive, serves up some of the most tremendously flavored and invigorating food I’ve had in a long time.
My first encounter with Enat was by pure chance, or rather, serendipity: While scrolling through UberEats past an endless litany of food that pretty much all sounded the same, my fat thumb happened to stop right on their listing. I figured, why not? I remember being overwhelmed at how good the food was and thinking that I would have to go visit in person.
I almost didn’t make it. Enat is tucked inside The Shoppes at Citiside, the entrances of which are not the most obvious nor easily accessible if you don’t know where you’re going. The restaurant itself is easy to miss, too, which, depending on your frame of mind, may even add to its appeal. A piece of advice if you find yourself lost: When you end up between a tattoo parlor and a head shop, you’ve come to the right place.
Another piece of advice: As soon as you walk in the door, ask for a beer. Meta, an Ethiopian beer available by the ice-cold bottle, is a rusty and straightforward lager, the perfect for a palate flogged to death by too many craft beers in this town, and the perfect antidote to the heat of a mid-spring evening.
To pair with your Meta, and to tide you over while you get acquainted with the menu, order a plate of sambusas. Stuffed with beef, chicken, or lentils — all are good, but the lentils are not to be missed. How well they maintain their structure in the heat of the fryer, wrapped tightly inside those crisp doughy parcels, is surely a modern kitchen marvel, just as how fragrant, seasoned, and toothsome they are offers the kind of rare sensory pleasure for which lovers of food live and die.
Whether you grab one of the sambusas with your hand and take a bite or use a knife and fork to slice it open, the lentils will come bursting out. This works as a visual metaphor, not only as a preview of all the explosive flavors that are about to come your way, but also as a stand-in for the chef’s passions, which are barely contained.
Tina Tedla, the chef and owner whose kitchen is a one-woman operation run with a fierce, obsessive focus on consistency, moved from Ethiopia to the United States when she was 10 years old and settled in Charlotte shortly thereafter. Her mother ran a private catering business, making food for the Ethiopian community here, which at the time was still small.
Her mother’s recipes, which form the basis of every dish on the menu, and the experience of growing up in the kitchen watching her mother cook, laid the kindling for a fire whose heat over time became too intense to ignore. Despite studying health-care management at university, Tina’s passions ultimately pushed her to choose a different path. She opened Enat (which in Amharic means “mother”) in 2017.
But three years in, her world changed. COVID restrictions forced her to close the restaurant down for indoor dining; Enat wasn’t designed to allow for social distancing. She was able to keep the business afloat, but only just, thanks to takeout orders and a loyal customer base. And then her father became grievously ill.
“It’s weird to put it this way, but COVID was a blessing,” she said. “I didn’t have to be in the restaurant all the time, and it meant that my mother, sisters, and I could all take care of him.”
The devastation of his passing, coupled with a business that seemed crippled beyond rehabilitation, may have affected her more than she let on to me, but she insisted.
“When you have a passion,” she said, “you go for it.”
Two rounds of government relief meant that she could renovate the restaurant in a way that would allow her to comply with social-distancing guidelines. To be sure, the current space, a hole in the wall of the best sort, feels bigger than it actually is. Tables and banquette seating are comfortably spaced apart and run down the hallway parallel to the kitchen, while the walls, mustard yellow with red and black accents, glow.
Tina was able to reopen Enat for indoor dining last month with her sister helping in the kitchen with morning prep work, and her mother there to make injera fresh everyday. Her mom is an invaluable resource in that regard, Tina says. Injera, the tight spools of sour, fermented flatbread that are the calling card of any Ethiopian restaurant, changes with the weather, and her mother “just knows” when and how to adapt.
Passion at Enat is a family affair. Her young nephew Kirubel, a charismatic and constant presence at the front of the house, is in on it, too. He welcomes first-timers as though they were old friends and meticulously explains the elements of each dish on the menu for those who might be unfamiliar. On my first visit, when I told him I wanted something spicy, he sold me on doro wat, a rich, fiery stew with a bone-in chicken leg and a hard-boiled egg. The chicken was so tender that it quivered under a spoon, and the egg had the same effect as pouring milk on a burn.
The stew itself, which arrived at the table in a mini cauldron, was glorious — dark and glossy, fuming with heat, with flavor and spice swirling around to create a hearty brew of endless, intoxicating layers. I may or may not have snapped a pic and sent it to a friend overseas, with a simple four-word assessment: “I am in love.”
Spices here in general have that effect. The berbere blend, which Tina’s mother makes from spices imported from Ethiopia, is what gives the doro wat its heat, but it also offers the chance for romance and discovery, like getting to know someone on a first date. What was that lovely note hiding in the background of the stew, sweet and nutty and a bit like celery? Was it fenugreek? Or in the kitfo — beef tartare that was languorously textured like a memory foam pillow, with heat that asserted itself as though in the soft-pawed steps of a pouncing cat. What were those smoky notes that followed? Of menthol or camphor? I learned that another word for black cardamom is korarima.
There is much to discover, too, in the menu’s many vegan options. The most efficient way to try them all is to order the lavish Passport Plate, to which my group added a decidedly non-vegan option, profoundly garlicky chicken tibs. When the platter arrived at our table looking like a painter’s palette, little in the way of modesty kept us from tucking right in. Mixing and matching was inevitable.
Injera in hand, I went first for the miser, red lentils simmered into gorgeous berbere oblivion. On its own, it was intense and tickled the nose, but when paired with a pinch of sautéed collard greens, it was another thing entirely, the delicious, transformative food equivalent of an evolved Pokémon. I returned to the tikel gomen in between bites of the beet and potato salad. It was too hard to resist the juxtaposition of the ripe purple beets against the sun-colored cabbage, just as it was too hard to resist how the cabbage was cooked so that it retained the slightest bit of crunch and made the carrots paired along with it taste even sweeter.
One member of my group that night was particularly fond of the tomato fitfit, injera that’s been pummeled into something that resembles spongy couscous, mixed with tomatoes, olive oil, and a bit of jalapeño. I watched her sneak more than a few bites.
Like many of the customers who find their way to Enat, there were others in my group who were new to Ethiopian cuisine, and parts of the menu are designed with that in mind. For those who might be weary of injera, brown rice and pita bread are available to ease the transition into something different. There are even some items that are unconventional by Ethiopian restaurant standards, but which are nevertheless universally familiar.
There is a kitfo quesadilla, for example, which finds the beef tartare cooked between two flour tortillas with ayib, a house-made feta-like cheese. The cheese doesn’t melt the way it needs to in order to bind the tortillas together, but I still admired the concept. Much more successful in my mind was the lamb tibs sandwich. A generous heap of stir-fried lamb cubes, slightly crunchy from the high heat and pulsating with spice, mixed together with tomatoes, onions, and jalapeño peppers and stuffed inside a toasted white bread roll.
It’s such a simple, concise idea that I never would have thought of it myself. If bánh mì is the world’s greatest sandwich (a controversial assertion that I will defend to the death), then it should watch its back, as this one is waiting in the wings.
All of which is my way of saying that it is impossible for you to go wrong with the food at Enat. Tina (and her family) will make sure of that. Raise that beer in her honor, then, and try something new, and then be grateful that her sheer determination, tempered by a singularly focused passion, has afforded you that experience.
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