I caught a glimpse of the sign just off Martin Luther King Boulevard near the Sailcloth Factory: Liza's Store and Ethiopian Cuisine. It didn't exactly look encouraging, not when the word "Store" came first. But Baltimore doesn't have many Ethiopian restaurants -- it doesn't have any other that I know of -- so I decided to give Liza's a try.
The dining room, in back of the small grocery, is clean and very Spartan, with two travel posters, a large fan and tables covered in oilcloth. Ethiopian music blares from a boom box. A lot of people go to an ethnic restaurant for atmosphere as well as food; Liza's is not for them.
Liza is Elizabeth Altate, the personable owner and chef who came to Baltimore from Ethiopia by way of D.C. She points out that Washington has countless places to eat Ethiopian food, but when she moved here she found nothing. "My [store] customers urged me to open up a restaurant," she says. She has plans to expand to a spot on Charles Street, but right now she has her hands full managing the tables behind her store. She does the cooking and waitressing, with help from the young woman behind the grocery counter; everything is pretty much prepared to order.
In other words, go when you're not feeling rushed.
If you've had Ethiopian food before, you know why the tables are set with napkins but no silverware. The food is eaten with your hands; when you finish, you can eat the plate.
Little mounds of food are placed on the big, floppy, spongelike hTC bread called injera. More injera comes in a basket on the side. Tear off a piece and scoop up a little of this and a little of that. This is fun food, good for those who like to nibble.
Portions seem small, but the food is intensely spicy and very filling. Someone in your party should get the vegetarian platter, which includes variously seasoned mounds of cabbage with potato, lentils, greens with onion, split peas and a spicy, rust-colored puree of dried peas.
A chicken leg and a hard-boiled egg may not be exactly what you had in mind when you ordered doro watte, hot chicken, but that's what you get. The chicken was fall-off-the-bone tender in its fiery brown sauce, so tearing it apart without a knife and fork was no problem. But nobody tackled the egg.
Lamb tibse is little cubes of lamb sauteed in butter with onion and green pepper, according to the menu. I was expecting green pepper, and it looked like thin strips of green pepper, but until I took a nice big bite I didn't realize it was green jalapeno pepper. Be warned. And have your glass of water handy.
Rather unexpectedly, Liza's offers cappuccino and espresso -- except that the espresso machine was broken the day we were there. But you can finish your meal with a fancy ice cream from the freezer up front.
Where: 739 W. Pratt St.
Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner.
Credit cards accepted: No.
Features: Ethiopian cuisine.
Non-smoking section? No.
Call: (410) 385-1448.