The Warm Hug From Altaye

by Jennifer Cox

On the occasion of my first visit to Altaye at 8135 Rainier Avenue S. I was still somewhat new to Rainier Beach and was actively trying to lure people south to socialize. Luckily my friends are somewhat easy to manipulate with Ethiopian fare and were fairly easily coerced into congregating at Altaye for dinner. At the time of our visit there was a very large party occupying nearly every other table in the restaurant, and thus our band of four made do with a tall bar-style table.

The food was delicious, and the proprietor Tizita (aka “Titi”) very attentive to our experience. My friends and I had a lovely meal at Altaye, yet for no good reason it was more than two years before I returned.

When I did return to Altaye, it was to pop in for a takeout order.

After cheerful greetings were exchanged and my order placed, I sat down to wait. Titi said to me, “I remember you coming here before. There were four of you, and you were there,” motioning to the same tall table my friends and I had shared such a long time ago. I was most impressed with Titi’s recall. Titi handed me her baby to hold while she finished my order. I felt genuinely honored.

Since the first return visit I’ve been back to Altaye two more times in fairly close succession, once for take-out and once to dine in with a friend. The restaurant’s take-out portions are generous to understate, with a more than ample supply of spare injera tucked into the bulging cartons. And I do mean bulging cartons. Handle the abundance carefully, lest you too find yourself washing Doro Tibs off the side of your Mazda.

Though I recommend Altaye for grabbing a meal to go, dining inside the restaurant is the way to really experience the hospitality of hosts Titi and Essa. The dining room has no lavish décor, yet is rich with the cozy feeling of family and the bewitching fragrance of the kitchen’s spices. The menu features a line-up of Ethiopian classics, my personal favorites being Doro Tibs and Vegetable Combo.  The brick-red sauce of the Doro Tibs blends bold spice with tomato and onion to bathe tender pieces of chicken. The Vegetable Combo is a carnival of colors and flavors including earthy beets, vibrant spinach Gomen, legume stews known as Wot, and crumbles of fresh Ethiopian cheese.

For those uninitiated to Ethiopian food, the dining technique is quite simple: no utensils necessary. The various stews will be presented on a bed of thin, spongy, tangy bread called injera, along with additional injera on the side. Tear small pieces from your side injera, pinch up stew with fingers, convey to mouth. Enjoy. As I have found Titi and Essa to be most conscientious towards their guests, I encourage newcomers to Ethiopian cuisine to seek out Altaye as a welcoming entry point. What’s more, 4 people can eat heartily for around $40 sharing 2 plates.

These days, Titi greets me by name with a warm hug when I walk in the door. It should never have taken me so long to put Altaye into my dining rotation, and I plan to be a regular for many years to come.

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