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Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant
Where: 3900-A Pickett Road, Fairfax
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday
Price range: moderate (entrees $11.95-$14.94)
For information: 703-425-1130

Be sure to add Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant to your “must try” list of off-the-beaten-path eateries.

Sheba, located at the side of a mini-strip mall, introduces Ethiopian food to the Fairfax area. If you have never tried Ethiopian fare, this is a good place to start. The food is very good, fresh and well prepared, and, for some unexplainable reason, you feel as if you are enjoying a home-cooked meal.

And if you are familiar with Ethiopian food, Sheba is a good place to go for the same reasons — and because it will save a trip to Washington, where most of the area’s Ethiopian restaurants are located.

One of the virtues of Ethiopian food is that you can eat with your fingers — no utensils provided. Instead, food is served on injera — spongy, slightly sour flat bread, traditionally made from fermented teff, an iron-rich native grain. Injera serves as both platter and utensil.

Though the samboussa, a pan-fried puff pastry stuffed with spicy lentils, is an appetizer that is hard to bypass, you can get your first injera experience with the kategna or the tomato fit-fit.

The first is toasted injera that has been spread with berbere butter, rolled and cut into pieces (berbere is a traditional mix of garlic, chili peppers, ginger, dried basil, black and white peppers, among other spices). The tomato fit-fit blends tomatoes, onion and jalapeno peppers with pieces of injera and berbere lemon sauce for a spicy, unusual, but tasty, salad.

Injera plays a starring role with the main part of the meal, which is served on a pizza-size round of the bread with extra injera on the side. The vegetable combination, with servings of all the side dishes— mild and spicy lentils, beans and carrots, cabbage, collard greens — is a good introduction. Tear off a piece of injera and grab some vegetables, maybe mixing some flavors if you like, and enjoy.

Those familiar with Ethiopian food will find familiar favorites, and may immediately choose the kitte, a spicy mix of minced beef served either raw or cooked; the beg or doro wats, lamb or chicken cooked in a spicy sauce; or the lega tib, lamb or beef cooked in a mild sauce, with a spicy sauce on the side to add for extra heat.

The last entree on the menu, goden tibs, may not be as familiar, but it deserves special mention. Lean short ribs are sautéed with onions, garlic and rosemary until the meat is crisp and crunchy, then brought to the table on a sizzling grill. The flavors and textures of meat wrapped in injera are amazing and well complemented by sides of lentils or collard greens.

This is not fast food. The service is leisurely — which may contribute to the home-cooked impression — and if the place is very busy, might even be slow. Colorful Ethiopian baskets on a balcony brighten the simple but functional decor.

In addition to beer, wine and soft drinks, Sheba serves homemade honey wine for those at the balcony tables, and Ethiopian coffee. For coffee lovers, that is an added bonus.