Far down Rainier Avenue South, past bustling shops and restaurants, past a large QFC with a Home Depot across the street, past overgrown parking lots and old gas stations, is an unimpressive building on the corner of Rainier and Rose. Don't let the black bars on the windows intimidate you--inside, Altaye Ethiopian Restaurant is all warmth.
Owner Essa Mudesir emerges from the back to greet customers with his beaming smile, and with a sweeping gesture invites you to sit wherever you please. Since opening the restaurant two years ago, Mudesir and co-owner and cook Tizita Zeleke have been familiarizing patrons with Ethiopian customs and flavorful handmade food. They keep the experience authentic, preferring to serve the meals "family style" on a communal platter as in Ethiopia. Enjera, a spongy, slightly sour, tortilla-like bread, is placed at the bottom of the platter to soak up extra sauces, and entrees are dumped in separate piles on top. The meal is served with extra enjera folded on the side to pick up and eat the entrees.
Tizita wakes up early every morning to make the enjera from scratch, a laborious process involving fermenting and then baking the bread, to give it the spongy texture. "In Ethiopia, they can't go a day without the enjera," Tizita explained, "it's like coffee for them."
If the choices between lamb, beef, chicken, or vegetables are too overwhelming, Essa will readily recommend the chicken or lamb tibs, his personal favorites, or the Altaye special, a local favorite. The special comes with chicken or lamb in a spice-infused sauce, plus vegetables and soft white cheese, all for a mere $12. The array of vegetables includes beets, a small salad, red lentils, potatoes and carrots, steamed spinach, and a stew-like okra dish. All are seasoned with various spices, from subtle lime and garlic to distinct cayenne and chili powder. If spicy is not your forte, Essa and Tizita will happily tailor a dish to your request. The food is already served on a communal platter, and portions are large enough to share with a friend . . . or two.
The friendly smiles alone make it well worth the trek down Rainier Avenue, but if that's not enough, go for the sambusa. The fried pastry stuffed with lentils or meat come out golden, steaming, and perfectly flaky. At $1.50 each, they're almost criminal to pass up.
Altaye Ethiopian Restaurant, 8135 Rainier Ave S, 353-5157, RAINIER VALLEY