If you would have told us at the start of 2017 that Birmingham would have not one, but two Ethiopian restaurants, we might not have believed it. But here we are, and we’re delighted to report that the second Ethiopian restaurant to open in the Magic City is another must-visit.
Red Sea Ethiopian and Mediterranean opened September 1. Nestled next to the new Halal Supermarket on Greensprings (which opened the same day), it’s a welcome new addition to our food landscape. (Ghion Cultural Hall, which opened in the Pizitz Food Hall in March, was the first Ethiopian to open in Birmingham.)
We spent time this week at Red Sea, enjoying some amazing meals prepared by the restaurant’s co-owners Giniyat Mohammed (Gini) and Kedija Teyeb. The two friends, both Ethiopian natives and Birmingham transplants, met in 2004. As their friendship developed, they shared their love of cooking traditional Ethiopian dishes with each other and with friends and family.
“People were always asking us when we were going to open a restaurant, and here we are,” says Gini. What became cooking for her neighbors in McCalla quickly turned into the search for and renovation of a restaurant space, something neither Gini nor Kedija had done before. (In addition to running restaurants, both are also moms — Gini and her husband have three children and Kedija and her husband have two.)
The turning point came when the pair cooked at the Taste of Bessemer Expo earlier this year. There they gathered lots of new fans, including Bessemer’s mayor, who offered them a space to open a restaurant in Bessemer. However, they decided on the spot at 22 Greensprings Highway, where they opened shop on the Muslim holiday of Eid.
The lines were out the door.
“We had 300 people. I nearly cried I was so happy,” Gini says.
Red Sea is located in the space where Red Bowl once was. Yes, our once beloved dim sum spot is no more, but we’re consoled by the food we found here now.
Open seven days a week, with Gini and Kedija serving customers from 11 am. to 9 p.m. The menu features both Ethiopian and Mediterranean dishes –Kedija lived in Saudi Arabia for many years. We concentrated on trying the Ethiopian dishes this go around, but should note that there is an extensive Mediterranean menu (including kabobs, lamb shank, and falafal, as well as a variety of salads including Tabbouleh and Fatoush.)
On our first visit we started with an order of sambusa (the Ethiopian version of samosa): first chicken, then lentil. Lightly fried and steaming hot, they were a big explosion of taste in a little package.
A moment about the spices Gini and Kedija use to cook. Gini’s father has them ground in his home of Nazret, Ethiopa, and shipped to her in Birmingham. The star is the berbere, a potent all-purpose chile and spice blend that seasons many of Red Sea’s dishes.
The injera, the traditional sourdough-risen flatbread, comes from Atlanta, thanks to Gini’s husband. (Gini and Kedija are working on perfecting Red Sea’s own house made injera, to come.)
On a recent visit we watched as fellow customers learned to use the injera to scoop up helpings of their entrees, which is how it’s done in Ethiopia.
Here is the Lamb Alicha Wot, a curried lamb stew that was spicy but not overpowering. The lamb had the perfect tenderness and salad (served with many of the main dishes) was a good palate cleanser.
The veggie combo was a standout. Perfect for both those new and familiar to Ethiopian, the plate features six fresh vegetables and a salad. That night’s dish included split pea, green beans, cabbage, beets and the most divine spinach. Gini says she prides herself on the varieties of vegetarian dishes prepared in Ethiopia, and plans to add more vegetarian-friendly options to the menu. She says she thinks this appealing not just to vegetarians, but to people who want to find new ways to add fresh veggies to their days
“I would never use vegetables from a can,” Gini remarks. “All of our vegetables are fresh and chopped every morning. Ethiopian food must be prepared fresh every day.”
On another visit we tried the Chicken Doro Wat. This spicy chicken stew is served with chicken leg on the bone and a a boiled egg, simmered in Berbere sauce and served with cottage cheese and salad. Be prepared for the heat — Gini likes to make it spicy. But you’ll have plenty of injera nearby to take the edge off. (They also serve a Beef Wot and a Lamb Key Wot.)
Another word about the Mediterranean menu: since we were focusing on the Ethiopian side of the menu, we’ve only had bites from the Mediterranean selections — specifically the chicken shawarma. Judging by this, and the quality of the Ethiopian offerings, we are eager to return for more. Also on our must-try list: one of their family plates, which serves five and must be ordered three hours in advance. Among the options: rice kasba, rice mandi and rice saleeg. Yum.
The meal wouldn’t be complete without an order of their homemade creme caramel. Finish it off with Ethiopian coffee or an order of the cardamom tea — you’ll thank us for it.
Gini says she is excited to bring the dishes she’s loved and cooked since she was a little girl to her customers. “It’s really my passion to see people try Ethiopian food and enjoy it,” she says. She said she was delighted when Ghion Cultural Hall opened and that as someone who has lived in the area since 2001, she thinks Birmingham is ready to support multiple Ethiopian restaurants. They’ll be adding to and expanding the menu as time goes on, and she welcomes guests who are interested in trying something new.
“I find that they are pleasantly surprised,” she says. “It just makes me so happy to see that.”
Kedija and Gini
Red Sea Ethiopian and Mediterranean is located at 22 Greensprings Highway, 35209. Hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week. (205)848-5154