Sirgout Aga Badana moves out of the farmers’ market and onto Oakland Avenue
Dan Fontes’ murals of giraffes are the only ambassadors beneath the 580 underpass on Harrison Street in Oakland. They greet passersby in silence with cool, indifferent expressions. Resigned to the waves of ongoing traffic and the particles of exhaust that creep up the columns they’re painted upon. On the side of a convenience store a couple of blocks down the way, another giraffe, separated from his companions, is receiving a facelift. As the building gets repainted, so too will the solitary spotted neck, jutting jaw and tufted pair of horns.
Around the corner on Oakland Avenue, Sirgout Aga Badana has recently opened Desta Ethiopian Cafe. This is the chef’s first brick and mortar location after serving her food at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market. Desta’s white-walled interior absorbs the natural light that filters through the windows. The restaurant is a cheerful oasis with a couple of outdoor tables on the sidewalk out front.
Sirgout cooks close to the tables, but she’s separated from diners by a high counter. When we walked inside, I was aware of a presence busy assembling dishes and attending to pots bubbling on the stove. But, unless they’re planning to stand during their meal, diners aren’t really aware of the kitchen, or the clattering of cutlery and pans, as the chef is multitasking and assembling the orders as they’re coming in.
Like many other Ethiopian cafes, Desta serves injera as the vehicle which carries each finished dish to the table. The unique sour taste of injera comes from the use of teff, a grain native to Eritrea and Ethiopia. A friend who lived around the corner from and frequented Cafe Colucci for many years concluded that, in comparison, Desta’s injera is likely tempered with wheat. The flavor of the bread-like dough wasn’t as strong to her as the one served at Colucci’s. My takeaway was that the color of Desta’s injera was lighter, but I liked the milder flavor.
To get a sense of Sirgout’s cooking skills, order the veggie combo ($18). When it comes to making vegetables, the chef is a sorcerer with her use of spices. Nothing is bland or overpowering. I could taste the vegetables and the complementing ingredients she’d used in each dish. Red lentils meld with red onion, garlic and a berbere sauce. Split peas are cooked with onions, garlic and turmeric. Carrots and potatoes are tender and comforting.
But the azifa, or green lentils, mixed together with jalapenos, onion, garlic and lemon, was my favorite. One bite in and the flavor is immediately striking—bright and acidic with that jalapeno kick. If one asks for silverware, I’m sure Desta will accommodate most customers, but injera is meant to be eaten and used in the place of a fork or spoon. It’s floppier than Middle Eastern bread, but its sponginess absorbs the flavors of every sauce. We also tried a delicious lentil sambussa ($5), a savory pastry shell overstuffed with lentils.
More daring customers can order telba, a nutty creamy drink made of flaxseed. It’s as rich as a boba drink and can be sweetened with honey. One glass of telba is filling enough to consider it a dessert that’s ready to be split between two people at the end of the meal.
Desta also serves a brunch menu with familiar items such as scrambled eggs, a tofu scramble or a breakfast sandwich made with cauliflower patty and cashew cheese. The only less traditional brunch item is fuol, fava beans sautéed with tomato, herbs and garlic. All come with home fries.
Planted in the middle of a residential neighborhood, Desta quickly fills with locals who can linger there for coffee, tea or a full meal. But for East Bay residents who are looking for an exceptionally careful and caring approach to making vegetables, be prepared for a pleasant surprise. After eating one of Sirgout’s dishes, the giraffes might even seem less diffident and more welcoming, looming high above on their graying columns of concrete.
Desta Ethiopian Cafe, open Wed to Sun 10am–4pm. 303a Oakland Ave., Oakland. 510.737.3565. destaethiopiancafe.com.