By Rob DeWalt |
Café Roha (163 Paseo de Peralta, Santa Fe, NM) chef and co-owner Rahel Fikre-Selassie is a near blur while navigating her dining room on a busy weekday, delivering and taking orders, settling checks at the counter, answering questions about the menu and chatting with curious passersby. It’s amazing to see someone in Santa Fe do this with a constant smile on her face; then again, based on my recent experience, Fikre-Selassie has a lot to be proud of.
Café Roha opened quietly in mid-August in the DeVargas Center space formerly occupied by Tree House Pastry Shop and Coffee House. Decorated sparsely with African basketry and (for reasons I’ll explain in a bit) an expected painting of Saint George on horseback poised to slay a dragon, the roomy dining room spills into a section of the mall itself, with a handful of tables lining the center of the main retail drag. Wooden tables and chairs look nice and folksy, but the seats do nothing for those of us lacking, um, on-board cushioning.
A quick history lesson: Landlocked Ethiopia, a region long considered the cradle of humankind (and coffee!), has seen its fair share of religious influence. Judaism, Islam and Orthodox Christianity have informed Ethiopian culture over the centuries, and as it stands today, almost half of all Ethiopians still identify as Orthodox Christians. Thus, the patron saint of Ethiopia, Saint George, often adorns the walls of Ethiopian-owned restaurants and other businesses.
The country somehow evaded complete colonization; however, there were a few speed bumps, the most historically notable of which is its Italian occupation under brutal dictator Benito Mussolini, between 1936 and 1941. To be sure: Ethiopian cuisine has been influenced by millennia of grain, seed and spice trade with the Middle East, Asia and the Mediterranean. To be even surer: True Ethiopian cuisine sticks to its roots and must be appreciated as a culinary language and ritual all its own.
The menu at Roha (named after a city that the Ethiopian Orthodox church changed to Lalibela in the 12th or 13th century) is divided into salads, sandwiches, traditional dishes and sides, along with a small selection of European-influenced desserts. I gravitate toward the classic Ethiopian dishes but also crave crunchy salad. The Roha Ensalata ($7.50) includes fresh romaine, tomato, carrots, bell peppers, cucumber and red onions in a light citrus vinaigrette. Generously portioned and brimming with fresh ingredients, it could serve as a salad for two.
The classic doro wot ($13.95) is a loose stew—“wot” meaning stew or curry—of bone-in chicken in a spicy, sweet-sticky berbere (a mixture of chile, garlic, ginger, fenugreek and other aromatic ingredients) sauce with gomen, a classic preparation of braised greens (in this case kale) with cardamom and other spices. All entrees come with plenty of injera, a soft, spongy flatbread that has a slight tangy kick. Sega alicha ($13.95) is one of the most umami-est dishes in Santa Fe. In it, braised beef is blended with turmeric, cardamom, garlic and ginger, served with the same flatbread and braised greens. All entrees also come with a housemade cottage cheese, but it’s a bit dry and under-seasoned.
The plates at Café Roha come with knives and forks, but if you want to do it right, use your (freshly washed) right hand (the left one is considered unclean). Peel off a piece of injera bread and use it to grab bites off the plate. And do, please, pile the plates in the middle of the table and share it all, family style.
Gelato and sorbet make up the majority of rotating dessert options here, and they are made locally by Ecco Gelato & Espresso, using Fikre-Selassi’s flavor recommendations. A chocolate sorbet with fig sauce ($4.65) is outstanding when available. A daily dessert special rounds things out. Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, and coffee beans even adorn the tables. It’s traditional in Ethiopia to end a meal with a coffee ceremony. I’m only allowed one cup a day, so I bowed out, but if you leave this restaurant sans caffeine and head to Starbucks instead, you may be missing out (and you may be a jerk).
Open: 10 am-7 pm Tuesday-Friday,
10 am-6 pm Saturday,
11 am-5 pm Sunday, closed Mondays
Best Bet: Sega alicha
Can’t Miss: Coffee and injera
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- Explore Ethiopian Eats with Teff Love (e.g. Teff Brownies)
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- Restaurant Review: Spice up Diet with Excellent Table Ethiopian Cuisine
- Kitfo Makes Tasty Buffalo-Ethiopian Hybrid Sandwich (“Kitfo Sandwich”)