Friday, April 13, 2012

Queen of Sheba, Tampa

There don't seem to be many vegan options in the city of Tampa. Unfortunately, the best restaurant I had been to in Tampa recently closed to the public and has since been exclusively catering. So, I did a little research and found that there was an Ethiopian restaurant in Tampa -- Queen of Sheba. Given the limited options, we decided to give it a shot. Plus, we love Ethiopian cuisine. DC has more Ethiopian restaurants than any other city in the country and the cuisine is very good. So people from DC generally have a pretty high bar for this cuisine and I am no different. I told Zach before we went in that because it is the only Ethiopian restaurant in Tampa, my guess is that it is not that good. You can get away with not having very good ethnic cuisine if you are the only restaurant of that type in town because most people won't know any better. But, Zach and I do. And, unfortunately, my suspicions were correct.

Sorry - it was dark!

There were only a few occupied tables when we entered. We were seated near at the window in front of a fairly small, casual restaurant.  It appeared that only one person was waiting on all of the tables and she seemed fairly busy. I didn't recognize any of the wines on the menu so when our waitress approached us, I inquired about them and found that they were all of South African origin. That explains why I didn't recognize them. I went with a Pinot Noir that was, surprisingly, not that bad.

As we continued to peruse the menu, we noticed that they specified that all the vegetarian items were also vegan. I don't usually see the word "vegan" on an Ethiopian menu so I thought that was great.   I noticed some unusual items on this particular menu like a beet-based dish, which I was excited about. We decided to go with the Chef's Choice, which is described as all of the vegetable dishes on one platter.  Unfortunately, though, that is not the case. Our waitress informed us that we'd be served a sampling of whatever was available so instead of all 12 dishes, we may only get to sample 9-10 dishes. Seems like false advertising to me. She also mentioned that in addition to our sampler platter, we'd be receiving two appetizer spreads as well.

She immediately brought out a basket of injera, which is a spongy bread made from teff. She also brought out a thick, spicy paste and a spread made of jalapenos. Although it seemed odd, we assumed these were the appetizer spreads because she didn't say they weren't. In Ethiopian culture, you do not use utensils, rather, you tear off pieces of the injera and use that to pick up the food -- you sort of wrap the spreads in the bread. When we picked up the injera we were immediately taken aback by how hard it was. We tried it and it was hard and dense - the opposite of how it should be. When we inquired as to whether we could get better bread, the waitress mentioned they were cooking more and she'd bring some more out. She seemed frustrated in general. I mean, the injera was so bad, we could barely eat it. But, we sucked it up and tried the two spreads with the injera anyway. The first one was a paste that didn't taste like it should have been eaten alone. The second one, a jalapeno spread, also seemed like it should have been mixed into food rather than eaten alone. I stopped eating them until she came back to the table with our platter.

When she placed the platter down, she pointed out the appetizer spreads -- so they weren't the items that were first placed on the table. I figured as much, but I would have appreciated her mentioning that. What we first tried were spreads/spices that should be mixed into food. She also brought new injera, which was a much better consistency. Unfortunately though, the hard, bad injera was underneath all of our dishes on the platter. They typically lay one big piece of injera down on a platter and scoop each of the dishes on top of it. One of the best parts of Ethiopian food is getting down to the bottom of each dish so that you can eat the injera that has soaked up all the juices of the dish. In this case, that wouldn't be an option because the bread was hard and dense. Oh, well.

So, we tried the appetizer spreads first -- the first one, Azifah, was made of whole lentils blended with diced onions, green peppers, jalapeno, mustard and olive oil. I really liked this one. The other one was Buticha, which was crushed chickpeas mixed with olive oil, diced onions, garlic, hot pepper and mustard. This was our favorite.

Then, we tried the entrees, which were spread out all over the platter.  We first tried some of the lentil-based dishes and they were terrible. Typically, Ethiopian food is cooked with many delicious spices -- many with berbere - a spice mix. This food tasted like nothing - no spice and no taste. When we finally got our waitresses attention, she didn't seem to  understand what we wanted. All we were asking for was more spiciness -- she kept asking if we wanted new food. We said we'd like to have spicier food. She finally took the tray back. When she returned, I was speechless. Instead of giving us better dishes, the chef took dry spices and sprinkled them all over the dish. Really? I couldn't believe it. And he doused some of the dishes completely in dry spice -- didn't even mix it in! Wow. We tried them and they were almost inedible. It was the worst Ethiopian food we'd ever had in our lives.

There was even one dish that was supposed to be fava beans, but instead it was kidney beans. When I asked the waitress if they had the fava bean dish, she said these were the only beans they had and she didn't know which ones they were. Well, I know that fava beans aren't red or shaped like a kidney bean. It was all very disappointing. The only thing that was good was the green salad in the center of the platter, but I guess it would be hard to mess up a salad. The kidney beans and chickpeas were incredibly overcooked as well. The cabbage dish that is usually very light was doused in berbere.

Soon thereafter someone called and we heard the waitress tell them they'd be closing the restaurant at 8:15 p.m. because they ran out of injera. That is like a Mediterranean restaurant running out of pita bread!  In the end, we ate some of it because we were hungry, but I think Zach said it best when he said, "Was it edible - yes. Was it good - no."

Finally, the waitress brought us the check and seemed very upset. She said that the owner and chef had been out of town for a few weeks and the person cooking actually wasn't a cook at all. Maybe it was someone who usually prepped. In any case, she told us that everyone has been unhappy with the food and she was very frustrated as well. The owner prepared a bunch of food before he/she left and this person was just heating it up. The waitress ended up trying to make good by only charging us half of our bill. That was really nice and we appreciated it, but the damage was done. I won't ever return to this restaurant and now that I've read other reviews online, I'm not convinced the poor quality of the food was only due to the owner's absence. Still, I would not recommend this restaurant.

Queen of Sheba
3636 Henderson Blvd.
Tampa, FL
(813) 872-6000

Queen of Sheba on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

  1. If you ask for spicy of course the cabage is going to be cover with berbere, because when they make cabage it is not supposed to be spicy at all. I think the service and the food quality has been improved since you were there. You should go and check it out again.