Of all the sidewalk dining spots likely to inspire double-takes from passers-by, you wouldn't expect Almaz Caf√É¬© to top the list. For one thing, the place probably sells more coffee than anything else. What's more, it's only a few blocks from outdoor-eating meccas like Melograno, Audrey Claire and Twenty Manning. But Almaz offers something those places don't. As one pedestrian after another blurted when strolling past my table recently: "Whoa! Did you know that place has Ethiopian food?"
Their surprise is, well, unsurprising. There's not much to the storefront that would clue you in √Ę‚ā¨‚ÄĚ unless you happened to recognize "almaz" as the Amharic word for diamond. (In which case, good thing you're not trying to place an order at Geno's.) You can even unfold their three-panel paper menu and find nothing but bagels, salads and wraps on the front side. Flip it over, though, and you can start feasting your eyes.
Almaz is bound to win a loyal following among injera fiends who are tired of hauling across the Schuylkill to get their berbere fix. With about a dozen dishes split evenly between vegetarian and meat-based fare, it brings solid Ethiopian cuisine into Center City at modest prices.
Leading off the standards is an excellent dorowat, or chicken stew. The tangy red pepper sauce shines with a bright acidity that underscores the poultry's lemon marinade, and the meat falls right off the bone. A hard-boiled egg provides another way to soak up the gravy. The zilzil tibs, strips of well-done beef mixed with sauteed onions and peppers, was also tasty, but I could have done without the couple of gristle pieces that made it into the mix.
The vegetarian side of the menu is simple, straightforward and wholly satisfying. A mild stew of split red lentils makes for a refreshing summer dish when served at room temperature. The yellow split peas offer a thicker consistency in which the almost-chalky quality of that legume dominates. Collard greens are pleasantly bitter and properly moist √Ę‚ā¨‚ÄĚ which is to say, not at all soppy.
But with the exception of the chicken, none of those made my top three. I could eat Almaz's kinche, a cold crushed-wheat salad, every hot day this month. The lightness of the grain plays superbly off a dressing of clarified butter spiced with things like cardamom and clove.
On a completely different note, there's firfir, which has got to be the anti-Atkin's dream dish. A mound of injera is saut√É¬©ed with berbere sauce and seeded with little cubes of unbelievably tasty beef, yielding a moist hash with a consistency like polenta. I'm sure this is the same beef as in the zilzil tibs, but it just goes to show that this recipe is a prize-winner. Vegetarians can ask for filfil, a similar dish that's not on the menu but may be available.
Oh, and Almaz serves a pretty respectable cup of coffee, too. Why wouldn't they? It was Ethiopians who discovered the stuff.
140 S. 20th St.215-557-0108Mon.-Sat., 7 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun., 8 a.m.-8 p.m.