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The restaurant business is perilous: 25% of new restaurants fail in the first year, and by their third year, the attrition rate is 61%. So call ahead to make sure your chosen megeb bet (Amharic for "meal house," or restaurant) still exists. Many of the restaurants have websites, which I'll note, and some of the websites have menus. All of the restaurants on this list were still open at the beginning of 2010. But sometimes a website long outlives a restaurant - another reason to call first.
Almost 32 million Americans will have to cross state lines, international borders or the Pacific Ocean to get Ethiopian food. The nation's 22 most populous states have Ethiopian or Eritrean restaurants, but residents of 10 states have no such option: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Montana, New Mexico, New Hampshire, North Dakota, West Virginia, Wyoming - and of course, Alaska, which actually had one for a few months in 2007. Vermont now has a restaurant where you can get Ethiopian food one night a week. Rhode Island, New Mexico and Mississippi each got its first restaurant in 2011, a sign of the cuisine's growing popularity.
Some states, like South Carolina and Maine, have just one restaurant, usually in tourist or college towns (Myrtle Beach and Portland, respectively). And surprisingly, despite its many casino buffets, Las Vegas has nine of them. So you could say, "Wot happens in Vegas."
If you're lucky, you'll be treated like betegna - that is, a welcomed guest, almost a member of the family - when you visit an Ethiopian restaurant, especially if you become a regular there. But Ethiopian restaurants seem to have developed a reputation for being less than snappy about tending to their customers' needs.
And that's not me talking: It's Seleda, an online 'zine for hip young Ethiopians that published from about 1999 to 2004 (with a farewell issue in 2009). Each issue of Seleda had a Top 10 list in the style of David Letterman, and sometimes the lists poked fun at culinary things.
In April 1999, the "Top 10 Signs You Have Become a Ferengie" (i.e., a foreigner) included: "No. 6 - You still get bewildered by the slow service at Ethiopian restaurants." Other signs include asking for a beer list instead of just ordering a Heineken (Ethiopians in America tend to eschew their country's beer for continental selections), describing injera as "those spongy burritos," and reflecting on the dangers of carcinogens at an Ethiopian coffee ceremony, where smoke from the coffee beans fills the air (and sometimes the room).
I hope this guide will inspire some pioneering Ethiopians in America to set out for unexplored culinary territory and bring their food to those 10 unfortunate states without a restaurant. I welcome additions to or deletions from this list, which I'll keep updated as frequently as I can and when I hear from readers or restaurant owners.
University of Pittsburgh
ęCopyright 2010 by Harry Kloman