By JL Fields |

Editor’s note: Fields writes a monthly review of vegan options at local restaurants.

Colorado Springs, CO—Walking into Uchenna feels a bit like entering someone’s cozy home. Chef Maya, who almost always greets her guests at the door, has turned a storefront space into a warm, comfortable dining room. And she lets you do something you probably don’t do in your home – play with your food.

Uchenna Ethiopian Restaurant recently relocated within the 2501 W. Colorado Ave. strip of stores, into the corner space that now displays African art and weaved baskets, framed homages to France and tables adorned in rich hues of red, gold and brown. The intimate space – with 15 tables throughout, five in a private room – feels like an extension of the heart of the room that is hidden behind the wooden swinging doors: the kitchen.

I have always been drawn to Ethiopian restaurants – from New York to Pittsburgh to San Diego – because vegan options abound: Orthodox Ethiopians fast regularly, a time when animal fats are forbidden. The food is traditionally spicy; berbere, a toasty-sweet blend of chili pepper and spices such as cardamom and cinnamon, figures prominently.

Uchenna - Veg combo (collard greens instead of potatoes) - Colorado Springs, CO

Uchenna – Veg combo (collard greens instead of potatoes) – Colorado Springs, CO

Uchenna separates the vegetarian section on the menu (and an entirely vegan menu is in the works). With eight completely plant-based items, my suggestion is to make your first trip simple: Go with the vegetarian combo ($14 for 1; $25 for two). This sampler plate offers smaller portions of five of the eight vegan dishes (full-size portions are $10 each), which is a great way to experience Ethiopian food for the first time. My dining partner and I do not have the same heat threshold and were able to order a combo for two with one half mild and the other spicy.

Be sure to wash your hands before your food arrives because the platter of Ethiopian cuisine is served atop and alongside injera. This gluten-free sourdough flatbread, made with fermented teff flour, will serve as your eating utensil. That’s right: Just dig in (solely with your right hand if you want to eat as Ethiopians do) to scoop up the earthy and spicy mix of flavors. The split green lentils in the misser alecha, peppery from the ginger and slightly sweet from turmeric, temper the fierier misser wat (red lentils). The shiro watwat is a thick stew – boasts the highest heat and that’s when you really appreciate the role of injera, to not only soak up the stew but to offset the spicy intensity. The ground chickpeas in this wat, heavily seasoned with berbere and garlic, are pureed into a thick crimson paste.

Two vegetable dishes round out the legumes on the combo platter. Both mildly steamed, the fassolia (string beans and carrots sautéed with caramelized onions) and the atakilt (a thick cabbage, potato and carrot stew) are both lightly seasoned with spices such as cloves, cardamom, ginger and cinnamon and are easily spooned up in the injera. The warm, starchy vegetables are comfort food, Ethiopian style. If you are craving leafy greens, request a side of the gomen ($3) for the most flavorful vegan preparation of collard greens I’ve come across.

Less traditional vegan options on the menu include sandwich ($7-$8) and salads ($6-$9, hold the cheese).

Alcohol is not on the menu. but rose water lemonade and orange water tea (each $2.50) are. The cold tea is unsweetened but lightly sugared from the fruit. And if you are a coffee drinker, order a cup of the Harar ($2.50). The beans are grown and dried by chef Maya’s mother in Ethiopia and fresh ground each day at Uchenna. Rich and bold, it’s a fine way to cap the meal.

Uchenna Ethiopian Restaurant in Old Colorado City is a home away from home. An ideal choice for family-style vegan dining, to share food with friends, eat with your hands, enjoy a wide range of legumes and vegetables, and maybe, just maybe, get a hug from chef Maya on your way out.

Source: The Gazette

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