When one thinks of fast-casual, the first thought that crosses your mind is Chipotle. But the Washington area has taken that successful model one step further and applied it to salads (Sweetgreen), pizza (&Pizza), and even Greek fare (Cava Grill), all with rousing success. So what happens when you take one of the area’s most beloved ethnic foods and transform it into an affordable, quick meal? You get Ethio Express Grill.
As much as the District has developed over the past decade, one downside of all this gentrification are the rising rents resulting in the smaller mom and pop eateries either closing up shop or moving out to the suburbs. Just several weeks ago, Ethiopian staple Meskerem shuttered its doors in Adams Morgan; representing the sea change of clientele that now frequents the Northwest neighborhood amidst newer, more upscale restaurants (this blogger still mourns the loss of Pharmacy Bar). Washington Post writer Tim Carman even wrote a eulogy for Meskerem as it was the oldest operating Ethiopian restaurant in the U.S.
So it goes without saying that D.C.’s loss is Silver Spring’s gain, especially now that Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema has dubbed the Montgomery County suburb “the new Little Ethiopia” in his Spring Dining Guide. And he’s absolutely right – with at least half a dozen Ethiopian restaurants in downtown Silver Spring alone, you don’t have to go far to get some tibs and kitfo.
Enter Ethio Express Grill. Located off of Sligo Avenue and sandwiched between several auto repair shops and Jackie’s, Ethio Express Grill offers diners a “build your own meal” menu that is comprised of four steps: a base (injera, pita, spaghetti, mixed greens, or brown rice), protein (grilled beef [tibs], chicken, lamb, or tofu), a choice of one of five housemade sauces, and then a choice of nearly a dozen hot and cold sides that range from ayib cheese to yellow split peas. All of the ordering is done at the cashier as opposed to watching it being constructed in line as the meat is cooked to order, but the wait time between placing your order and having it served to your table is minimal.
The result is fresh, vibrant flavors in an efficient, cost-effective setting. The menu even offers half a dozen preconfigured plates which make it helpful for first-time visitors that get overwhelmed with the a la carte construction method. I ordered the Injera Plate, which was comprised of grilled beef, Ethio hot sauce, gomen (collard greens), spicy lentils (miser), yellow split peas (kik), and two pieces of injera. For $9.29, this was a considerable amount of food that is not only filling but also just as authentic as a meal from a full-service Ethiopian restaurant.
Rachel went the creative route and ordered grilled chicken, yogurt honey sauce, kik, green lentil salad (azifa), quinoa salad, and cucumber salad.
We were both impressed by our meals, and we’re so glad a place like this exists just down the road from us. If we could offer any critique, it would be to offer a paper menu with descriptions that someone can review before ordering. The list of sides to choose from could be somewhat daunting for a newcomer to Ethiopian food, and since you can’t look at an open counter to point at them, it would be helpful to have that option before going to the counter to order. While the location is a little off the beaten path, Ethio Express Grill has a lot of potential and makes for a terrific quick lunch or dinner should you be in the downtown Silver Spring area, or should I say the new Little Ethiopia.