Merkato delivers on Ethiopian eats

At Merkato, it’s eat-with-your-hands fun and seriously flavorful.
Photo: Sarah Feldberg

Sometimes, you go to a restaurant, have a perfectly good meal and then don’t go back. For four years.

That’s what I was thinking about while the hunger pangs clawed at my stomach during UFC 162 last weekend at MGM Grand Garden Arena. I was also thinking about buying a bag of popcorn, what my UFC walkout music would be, and how I was bummed-yet-psyched the Silva vs. Weidman main event ended so quickly. But in between all of that I was thinking about dinner, and why I hadn’t been back to Merkato.

After a somewhat traumatizing introduction to Ethiopian food in Washington D.C. (at 12 I didn’t comprehend that “tartare” meant raw, as in uncooked beef all up on my plate), I grew to really enjoy sitting around a wide platter of stews and salads, scooping up bites with the spongy, sour injera crepes that serve as vessel, tool and staple in Ethiopian dining. When I first moved to Vegas, I rallied a crew of adventurous Midwesterners and convinced them to try Merkato, an inconspicuous Valley eatery in the same non-descript Twain plaza that houses Harrie’s Bagelmania. The food was good, the atmosphere simple, the night a success. So after four years of staying away, I finally went back.

They were already carrying speakers through the front door when we arrived at Merkato around 10 p.m., the approximate hour when the restaurant morphs into dancehall, complete with flashing lights and super-loud thumping music in languages I don’t understand. We browsed a menu full of typos and tempting dishes, slow-cooked meats, hearty garbanzo mashes, tartares. Against our better judgment, we settled on three: the vegetable combo platter, yedoro wot (chicken cooked in butter with onions, garlic, ginger and herbs, served with a boiled egg) and awaze tibs (lamb sautéed with onions and peppers in hot pepper paste).

And it was just as I’d remembered. The veggie combo arrived on injera, a robust collection of 11 different nibbles, from a green salad to rich lentils to crumbly cheese and a salad of more injera. Heaped in the middle, the yedoro wot was fall-off-the-bone good, the chicken moist and tender, served in a thick, barely sweet sauce I could eat all by itself. Hot without overwhelming, the lamb was a tasty counterpoint, almost like Ethiopian fajita meat, if a bit overcooked.

We scooped and scarfed. Plunged wide strips of injera into the platter and bounced from dish to dish, each totally different from its neighbor. Finally, we surrendered—mountains of leftovers accusing us of over-ordering, yet again. By time we paid up—$31 before tip—we were already scheming about our next visit. It won’t take four years this time.

Merkato Ethiopian Cafe 855 E Twain Ave., 796-1231. Daily, 11 a.m.-2 a.m.

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Sarah Feldberg

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