Written by Josh Spencer
Megaphone Food Reviewer
Rating: 3.5 Stars
I returned this past Wednesday to the food critic circuit by making my first foray outside of Georgetown. I’ve tried to keep my reviews in the area, since most people are not willing to drive that far for a good meal, however, I think most readers can agree that dining options in G-town are still limited, meaning it’s necessary to branch out after a while.
I did just that, visiting a place in north Austin called Aster’s Ethiopian Restaurant (Exit Dean Keeton on the lower part of I-35 S just before the UT football practice bubble). I had been wanting to make it to Aster’s for quite some time, not only because of the rave reviews I had heard from others, but also because I wanted to make an effort to include some vegetarian dishes for those at Southwestern who are not carnivorously inclined.
For the uninformed, Ethiopia is in east Africa, meaning that this was this column’s first review of African cuisine. The restaurant itself is a small affair tucked right next to I-35. While it might not be a place of glitz and glamour, it definitely has a homey feel, and one can tell that this is a family-run operation by real Ethiopians. They offer tables indoors and outdoors, with both areas reminding you of a tiny Mexican restaurant except that there are posters of Ethiopia up all over the walls, and outside, the ground is artificial grass (no kidding). What struck me most, though, upon first being seated was the diversity of the diners. Also eating that night were a Hispanic family, a group of Indian guys, some native Ethiopians, in addition to what I’m sure were multiple people of even more ethnicities.
For drinks, Aster’s offers a limited range of domestic and import beers, with the notable inclusion of two Austin-brewed flavors, one an amber and the other a dark ale. We chose to go with amber as we weren’t in the mood for anything really heavy, and we were not disappointed. Austin Amber has a refreshing, sweet taste with a slight citrus flavor that went excellently with our meal. (Alert: Sodas are available; however, they are served in cans and thus, do not include free refills).
Aster’s menu is relatively straightforward with offerings broken down into meat and vegetarian dishes. My fellow diners and I all ordered from the meat side with selections of Kitfo (steak tartar), KeyiBeggWott (lamb stew), and DoroWott (spicy chicken). All entrees come with three vegetarian side dishes, so we were able to sample 9 vegetarian dishes such as KeyiMiser (split lentil), Gomen (collard greens), and FasoliaWott (mixture of potato, green beans, carrots, onions, and tomato sauce).
What came next really shocked us, since apparently in Ethiopia, they don’t use utensils. All of our selections were brought out on one gigantic plate, and we were then instructed to eat by grabbing them with the accompanying injera (spongy, tortilla-like Ethiopian bread). I can honestly say that every one of our many dishes was good with all the meat choices (excuse my bias) being delicious. The one warning I offer is that some of this food was pretty spicy, so eat carefully and make sure to have refreshment close by.
The steak tartar was basically comparable to uncooked ground meat, however, despite what negative connotations might be associated with such an image, the dish was flavorful and satisfying. The same can be said of the chicken, in which the spiciness kicked into high gear. The lamb was tender, delectable and a welcome, mild respite from some of the other five-alarm sides.
As far as vegetarian dishes are concerned, my expectations were far surpassed with the collard greens being surprisingly good despite my usual aversion to the plant. The lentils exceeded taste standards as well only to be topped off by the potato, green bean mixture that honestly, all exoticness aside, tasted like something that would make a fine addition to a Thanksgiving Day meal.
Aster’s does not offer appetizers or desserts, so the main course was all we had available, and believe me, that was plenty. Despite there not being any dinner meals under $10.95, you will get your money’s worth, especially if you go with friends. So much food was heaped on to our family-sized plate that we did not even get close to finishing all of the food, something that rarely happens when I’m eating out. I don’t think I can remember the last time I felt so sated at the end of a meal.
So while this might have been my first encounter with African food, I’m quite confident that even the experienced observer would have to recommend Aster’s as a place worth making the drive to. The food is good, the portions are large, and the place has a real down-to-earth feeling that should leave anyone satisfied on the way out.
Thanks to Winston Pool and Stephanie Seaman for their assistance.