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photo: Darrol Hofmeister
photo: Darrol Hofmeister

Yummy For Fingers

Selam’s got its foibles but the food is fantastic

by Aidan Morgan

Selam Ethiopian Cuisine
2115 Broad St

Sometimes in the course of restaurant reviewing you hit a rut.

"[prairie dog magazine editor] Steve [Whitworth]," I said, "I'm in a rut."

"Why not review one of Regina's many exciting new restaurants?"

"I could, but I don't wanna." [I have a terrible work ethic, you see.]

"How about Selam? We haven't reviewed them in a long time. Plus they've got a new awning."

"An awning, you say?"

For the record, Selam is one of my favourite Regina restaurants. The food is inexpensive (entrées range from $8.99-$11.99) and the atmosphere is honest (although some recent décor choices are pretty questionable). There's a pool table in the back and a hookah bar upstairs, if you feel like extending your supper into the night hours. And on some evenings, there's a guy whom I can only describe as the Ethiopian Tom Waits, a gravel-voiced singer who plays a bubbly Casio as he croaks out tunes like "Can't Help Falling in Love with You."

First-timers and other cowards might find Ethiopian food scary - the cuisine dispenses with cutlery altogether in favour of thin, spongy sourdough called injera. Instead of spearing or cutting your food, you rip a piece of injera from the roll and scoop a bite's worth of wot (a general term for the stew-like meat and vegetable dishes typically served) into your mouth.

I've seen people balk at eating with their hands, but that reaction makes no sense to me. Handling food encased in bread is something we do all the time. We call it a sandwich, and we enjoy these 'sandwiches' at the midday meal, which we call lunch. Sometimes we just load up our food on a big round piece of bread, which we call pizza, and no one has compunctions about putting their paws all over a slice of Copper Kettle's Finest.

So stop going on about how weird Ethiopian food is. You're only using cutlery because our dining habits reflect an ancient snobbery from the days when the amount of silver on your table announced your wealth. Don't be a sissy. Free yourself and embrace the mutant sandwich logic of Ethiopian cuisine.

Selam is also a great place to take your vegetarian friends (I'm assuming that you're a meat eater if you've read to this point, because vegetarians can only read up to 150 words in one go, after which they pass out from the effort). Selam's menu is neatly divided between vegetable/grain and meat dishes, with about an equal number of each, and actually, you'll find a greater variety of flavours and textures on the vegetarian side.

Unless you're quite familiar with the cuisine, the names of the dishes won't be of much help in figuring out what they'll taste like. But as a rule of thumb, anything called alecha will be relatively mild. If you see berbere or awaze in the ingredients list, expect some heat. And if you see mitmita, it will be gloriously, skin-warmingly spicy. Your server can help you figure out the right meal for you, but don't be afraid to try the unfamiliar. You'll never know what you like if you don't occasionally put your tongue in unexpected places.

The sambosas ($2.50 each) are a great starter dish. They come in beef, lentil and vegetarian, and they're accompanied by a sauce that's so good you'll want to live on it forever. Don't pass on the sambosas.

For your main courses, the best strategy is to order the vegetarian combination ($13.25), which comprises five dishes, or the Selam combination ($11.99), which has four meat dishes and a lettuce salad with a sharp vinaigrette dressing. If you have a party of four or five, why not order both? Yeah, go ahead and order both. Do it.

Selam's food continues to please. The change in décor, however, is a misstep on any level you care to think about. The awning is an attractive addition to the exterior, but the modest chairs inside have been replaced by heavy, worn-out, unbelievably ugly benches. Selam has always had a bit of a low-budget, DIY charm, with framed calendar images and travel posters on the walls, but the new benches look like they were ripped out of a Trifon's Pizza and dumped in an alley. They take up so much space that the restaurant suddenly feels smaller - but more importantly, they make Selam feel like a Regina pizza joint that happens to offer Ethiopian food. I hope they'll put in better furniture some day.

While never indifferent or rude, Selam's unpredictable service can be a bit baffling at times. On my last visit, we arrived promptly at 5:30 - but by 6:45, our main courses still hadn't been brought out. We sat and watched as plate after plate sailed by, destined for customers who had come in after us.

Eventually we had to leave and get our supper to go. Our server very kindly comped our Ethiopian coffees ($2.50), but I discovered that they had forgotten one of the items we ordered - which was really bizarre, because I'd had a pretty detailed conversation about the dish when I ordered it.

I was set to write a grumpy review after that experience. But when I popped open the take-out container and scooped up a heap of atkilt wot (green beans, potatoes, carrots and onions sautéed in Ethiopian spices) in a square of sharp-tasting injera, my irritation melted away. I can't stay mad at you, Selam.

Selam is open from 5:30 to 9:30, Tuesday to Sunday, and for lunch Tuesday to Friday. Closed on Mondays.