Mohammed Omer wanted to name his restaurant after Dire Dawa, a city in his native Ethiopia, but he knew better. “No one wants their restaurant to be called ‘Dire,’” he said.
But the word is pronounced “de-ray,” so Omer opened shop on South Highland a year ago this month and called it Derae. His wife, Zenub Abdurahman, cooks, and Omer runs the front of the house. Together, they offer delicious food and a warm welcome.
Omer left Ethiopia in a resettlement program 20 years ago, living in Egypt, Canada (where he met and married Abdurahman) and Atlanta. He came to Memphis to purchase a convenience store, changed his mind, but stayed here when his wife, a chef, said she wanted to open a restaurant.
The food she cooks is mostly Ethiopian, but with other East African influences and Mediterranean touches.
With Ethiopian food, first comes injera. If you’re familiar with it, you might like it, though it’s understandable if you do not. It’s a flatbread with a rubbery texture, a spongy appearance and a distinct sourness. There’s not a lot to like, in fact, if you eat it alone. But it’s absorbent, and it soaks up flavors of the foods served on top of it like, well, a sponge.
If you don’t like it, don’t eat it. Omer will bring wheat bread. But keep in mind that the scooping of food with injera is customary — Omer will show you what to do — so at least give it a try.
You won’t have reservations about anything else, as long as you’re good with spicy food.
Tibs is a fiery beef stew born in a fragrant onion-and-chili-infused oil. Additional chilis are added to the stew, which has also been generously seasoned with a ground red chili powder from Ethiopia. Each bite of the rich and hearty stew bites back, and it’s delicious. Omer asked if it was OK to bring it to us spicy (“That’s how we make it,” he said) before he served us, and we said yes. I’m not sure what we would have received if we’d said no, as the stew had the seamless melding of flavors that indicate it had simmered a good while.
Hanid and rice is very good, and the meat is goat. Goat is the most widely consumed red meat in the world; there are few cultural or religious prohibitions against eating it, the animals can be raised in pastures or mountains, and it’s cheap. We’ve not yet come to truly embrace it, but finding goat on menus in Indian, Mexican and sometimes Middle Eastern restaurants around town is easy enough. At Derae, it comes served in good-sized tender chunks atop a big bed of perfectly prepared basmati rice. The flavor is distinct, but it’s not strong or off-putting.
Start slow, by ordering a dish called Federation, which is half hanid and half spaghetti. Both are delicious; the beefy tomato sauce on the spaghetti also contains green peas (really beans, not English peas).
Or forgo the goat in favor of the heavily spiced chicken and rice, a huge dish of very good rice topped with pepper-coated pieces of tender chicken breast.
I wasn’t crazy about the hulbat marakh, available only on Friday and Saturday. It’s a beef and potato stew that is fairly bitter because of the heavy addition of fenugreek; Omer said it’s medicinal (and also told me I probably wouldn’t like it).
The sambusas, similar to Indian samosas, are delicious stuffed triangles of thin dough, fried crisp and served with a very spicy green pepper chutney. The vegetable combination plate is superb — cabbage, kale, green peas, yellow peas, and lentils are served in separate dollops on a round of injera.
The breakfast menu features fuul, a hummus-like dish made with fava beans. Hands down, this is the best fuul (it’s pronounced “fool”) I’ve tasted, truly deserving of its menu description “irresistible taste.” It’s served warm, a thick, spicy paste peppered with whole favas and topped with minced pepper, diced onion, and sour cream. You can order it all day, not just during breakfast hours.
The same goes for the fatira, a dish made of eggs, vegetables and strips of flat bread similar to a tortilla all scrambled together. Try it with the chutney.
If you like Indian food or spicy Caribbean fare such as Jamaican jerk dishes, Derae is right up your alley. The interior is simple and clean. Omer’s friendliness and enthusiasm for his wife’s food easily makes up for having to ask for an extra plate, a fork or so on.
You’ll likely come away feeling like you’ve had dinner at a friend’s house.
Address: 923 S. Highland.
Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
Reviewer’s choice: Fuul ($6); fatira ($6); vegetable combination ($12); sambusa ($1 for beef, vegetable, 2/$1); chicken and rice ($12).
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars