Injera is eternal. The tangy Ethiopian flatbread made of fermented teff — at its best silky and fluffy yet pliant enough to wrap stewy pinches of doro wot into savory bundles — is essential to one of the world’s most ancient cuisines.
But this past year may have been the most challenging year ever to have opened an injera-dependent restaurant like Buna Cafe, a new Ethiopian destination that had been primed to launch in Cedar Park just as the coronavirus shutdown took hold.
So chef Belaynesh “Bella” Wondimagegnehu and her husband, Demelash Demissie, who’d been working six years to transform this bi-level space on the 5100 block of Baltimore Avenue, waited until October to open their tribute to home.
Few culinary traditions rely on a close communal dining experience more than Ethiopian cuisine, where platter-size rounds of injera topped with a feast of colorful stews are an intimate, hands-on eating affair. The ritual known as gursha, in which diners feed each other, was not practical at the height of social distancing restrictions, says Buna’s manager Eyob Moges, a cousin of Wondimagegnehu.
“The pandemic made us all uncomfortable,” says Moges, 33, an Addis Ababa native. “But we gave people their own plates and folks found a way.”
Buna also did takeout when it finally opened in fall for a few months, before restrictions closed it again for the month of January. But injera’s spongy ability to soak up juices was not ideal for a car journey longer than 15 minutes.
To finally enjoy Wondimagegnehu’s cooking fresh on-site is a completely different feeling. And to dive joyfully into its immersive eating experience felt as if we were reaching a milestone of dining freedom in this ever-tenuous recovery. With a good (fully vaxxed) friend on the other side of my injera platter in Buna’s cozy mezzanine, we devoured the savory spread of bold flavors as it was meant to be, leisurely catching up while our hands gathered up the landscape of mounded stews and fragrant vegetables, one injera-wrapped mouthful at a time.
A silky orange puree of misir red lentils shimmered with berbere spice, while tender cubes of beef in the dinich beh siga basked in a gravy enriched with the chef’s secret seasoned butter and tanged with the tea-like herb koseret. Ginger and turmeric radiated from the silky khik alicha puree of split yellow peas that Wondimagegnehu painstakingly sifts to assure it’s flawless, just as she learned at her auntie’s restaurant back home in the lake resort town of Bishoftu (once known as Debre Zeit.) Little piles of cabbage and potatoes and a verdant collard shred of gomen on opposite sides of the platter provided both a vegetal sweetness and peppery green crunch to counter the spicy meats.
Moges was a masterful guide in helping us build our meal with balance, and spoke of his satisfaction in tasting a chef’s touch that captures the elusive flavors he recalls from his youth, like the deeply earthy bozena shiro chickpea puree studded with tender cubes of spiced beef.
“I can almost smell the clay pots and woven baskets of home,” Moges says, singling out that dish as his favorite. It was one of mine, too.
And many others highlight Wondimagegnehu’s talent for dishes that are simultaneously complex in seasonings but layered with a clarity of flavors that showcase the principal ingredients.
Her modern twist on kitfo, an Ethiopian tartare over toast offered as an appetizer option to the half-pound entree, is all about the contrast of silky, cool, minced raw beef laced with the slow burn of tiny African bird’s eye chiles and the menthol whiff of black cardamom in its mitmita spice blend. A creamy green garnish of collards mashed with fresh buttermilk cheese is spooned over the top to accent the meat’s richness and minerality. The crunchy snack of katenga offers butter-crisped rolls of injera encrusted with the family’s distinctive berbere, a fragrant spice blend of cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, nigella seeds, and garlic that gets pounded in a communal mortar and pestle by Wondimagegnehu’s sister in their hometown along with holy basil and sun-dried peppers that lend this blend a smoky, aromatic, and assertive punch.
The spice used for kitfo has a different effect when the strips of beef are dehydrated into jerky, which is then turned into a stew to soak injera for the quanta firfir. The classic chicken dish of doro wot luxuriates in the sweet and spicy brown gloss of a gravy made almost entirely from onions that takes two days to cook down with berbere spice. Try a pitcher of Moges’ blend of pomegranate and mango nectar muddled with Thai basil to quench the spice. (The restaurant is BYOB.)
Close followers of West Philly’s long-established Ethiopian dining scene may remember Wondimagegnehu’s cooking at her Blue Nile Falls at 45th and Baltimore, before back trouble forced her to close it eight years ago. While she and Demissie continued to run their longtime neighborhood bar 720 West Bistro, on 52nd Street, they set their sights on rehabbing both Bella’s health and this space, which Demissie saved from demolition and then rented as office space for Councilmember Jamie Gauthier.
During the tense moments of unrest that took place in the area around 52nd Street over the previous year, protective boards covered the cafe’s ground-floor windows. But just days before its October opening, when sticker murals of three whimsical human figures topped with teddy bear heads by the artist Sean Lugo appeared on those boards, Buna’s team viewed it as a sign of neighborhood welcome and hope.
They have returned the favor by trying to craft their space into a community hub, installing cell phone chargers and a printer (for the work-at-cafe crowd), hosting weekly evening jam sessions on its awning-shaded sidewalk, and creating a weekend brunch menu with some Americanized crossover flavors to appeal to the West Philly’s diverse audience.
The many vegan options already well-represented in traditional Ethiopian cooking have been especially popular with the farm stand crowd coming to Greensgrow West next door. And Baltimore Avenue’s already competitive chicken-and-waffles corridor just got stronger with Buna’s Ethiopian take, glazing boneless fried thighs with berbere paste, sorghum butter, and honey, and adding shai tea spice to the syrup.
They were delicious. But I couldn’t help but take a sip of Ethiopian Black, the aromatic Yirgacheffe coffee steeped with spices and the lemony herb called rue meant to evoke the flavors of a coffee ceremony, and lean as far as I could into the brunch menu’s traditional specialties. (”Buna,” after all, is the Amharic word for coffee). And so did my friend and former colleague Nat, who grew up in an Ethiopian household in King of Prussia. He gave his approval to the flaky sambusa pastries filled alternatively with well-seasoned lentils, chicken, and beef. Nat then reveled in the nostalgic comfort of the fluffy, buttered cracked kinche wheat, and especially the chebchebsah (”my childhood favorite!”), as he drizzled honey over the bowl of torn flatbread tinted orange with Wondimagegnehu’s signature spiced butter.
And then there were the entrees rolled into neat brunch packages of injera, hiding fluffy scrambled eggs sparked with chopped hot peppers inside; tender nubs of beef slow-cooked into siga wot. There was also firfir, a mound of injera strips fully soaked in oniony berbere gravy before they’re wrapped crêpe-like inside the soft gray folds of yet more fresh and tangy flatbread, which, not surprisingly, will fill you up quick. Like I said, injera is eternal. But Buna Cafe’s journey to becoming a worthy draw to Cedar Park has only just begun.
The Inquirer is not currently giving bell ratings to restaurants due to the pandemic.
5121 Baltimore Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19143, 610-615-8575; https://bunacafephilly.com/
IF YOU GO: Dinner Tuesday through Sunday, 3-9 p.m. Brunch Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
All major cards.
Street parking only.
Wheelchair accessible to front dining area only.