I’m moving from Melbourne to New York City for the next six months, so I dropped by my newly former-place-of-employment, Lonely Planet, to pick up packing boxes. Sadly, I forgot how small book boxes can be, but I did get enough to take care of all my cookbooks and fiddly kitchen items.
Lonely Planet’s global headquarters is in Footscray, and for anyone who hasn’t been to Footscray, it is an amazing melting pot just a short drive west of the city centre yet a world away. Here, Melbourne’s Anglo and European population is outnumbered by Vietnamese and African residents. Footscray is poor, ramshackle, just sketchy enough to feel exciting, has my favourite (and cheapest) food market in all of Melbourne, and is the best place in the city to get a great feed for astonishingly little cash.
I rarely had time to escape the desk at Lonely Planet, so now that I’m back to full-time freelance writing, I finally had a chance to check out Cafe Lalibela, a neighbourhood Ethiopian restaurant that’s got strong street cred. I always get turned around in Footscray, so I drive aimlessly as usual until I finally stumble upon Irving Street, catch Lalibela in my rear-view mirror and U-turn into an easy park… in front of some dudes who may or may not be in a gang. With minimal eye contact I slink into the restaurant, and find myself welcomed by friendly staff who advise me to sit wherever I please.
The menu at Lalibela is short, completely unfamiliar and printed on well-worn menus covered with tiring plastic – but who cares when most items are $12 or less? Nor it is a problem that the staff move as quickly as ambulance drivers on a coffee break. I have been transported to Africa, and I now feel like expecting things to move any faster would be, well, a poor response to its chilled-out authenticity. Speaking of which, the crowd seems authentic as well, with women showing up for lunch in bright yellow headdresses and, save two noticeable Aussies, everyone else appears to be African. I love it.
When the waiter (possibly the owner) does arrive, he is friendly and encouraging, and guides my dining partner and I to order lamb ‘tibs’ and a chicken dish stew called doro wat. Both arrive on a large round dish covered with injera, Ethiopian bread with a citrusy tinge to it and comprised of so many holes it looks like the baker’s version of tripe. Atop it are the tibs – chunks of lamb mixed with onion and green chilli and covered with a spicy tomato sauce – and the chicken ‘wat’, a smoky and spicy stew made with berbere, garlic and onion, highlighted with a fall-apart drumstick and topped with a hard-boiled egg. I later Wikipedia ‘berbere’ to find out that it is spice mixture usually comprised of chilli, ginger, cloves, coriander, allspice, rue berries, and ajwain. I can’t be bothered to Wikipedia ‘ajwain’.
The best part of Ethiopian food is the pleasure of eating without a single implement. You simply break off a piece of injera and use it to grab hold of the meats or veggies placed atop the bread. The is not date food, unless you think sucking berbere-stained fingers feels like foreplay. But it’s fun, and to novices to Ethiopian food, messy, messy fun.
The lamb tibs have a satisfying light tomato sauce, even if the cubed meat is a bit chewier than I’d like. I eat the lot, but get too full to finish the doro wat, whose chicken mince is so dark I first mistake it for meat, and its deep, rich flavour is inspiring in its uniqueness but too powerful for my palate to enjoy in large doses.
Ethiopia is also known for its coffee, so after I’ve had my fill, I head to the bar. I’m told by the proprietor that the coffee is somewhere between espresso and Turkish coffee, which sounds good to me. But as I’m about to order, I’m told that, unfortunately, there’s no coffee today. Oh well, I’ll have to get a latte at North cafe in Carlton North later.
Lalibela isn’t perfect, but it gives me a meal and an atmosphere unlike any other. The bill comes to $24 for two people, and we could have easily shared a single $12 dish if we weren’t greedy for variety. So while the meal may not have been a seamless run, the bill certainly ensures a perfect ending.
Cafe Lalibela, 91 Irving St, Footscray, Vic, (03) 9687 0300