He Ate, She Ate

By Mark Nixon and Gabrielle Johnson

Spicy flavors, unique textures abound with Ethiopian cuisine

An acquired taste

Let’s start with the good stuff about Altu’s.

Despite its exterior — think 1970s Laundromat — inside you will find a place akin to what Hemingway called “a clean, well-lighted place.” Reed mats, wicker baskets, palm fronds and a turquoise-and-ivory-colored checkerboard floor give Altu’s a real sense of place.

On both dining occasions, I was served by the same young woman. She was more than polite and attentive. She beamed as if she were deliriously happy to work at Altu’s. That’s not something you see every day in a restaurant.

Altogether, something clicks at Altu’s. Perhaps its proximity to Michigan State University offers a taste of home to some international students. With the recent closing of the Travelers Club in Okemos, maybe Altu’s is the only place left locally to get an out-of-the-mainstream culinary fix — in this case, Ethiopian. Whatever the reason, Altu’s stands apart. For 15 years, owner Altu Tadesse’s creation has retained a devoted following, as several online reviews will attest.

Surely Altu’s exists because it is a labor of love. Alas, in my case, the love is unrequited.

It’s fair to say I don’t “get” Ethiopian, in the same way I don’t get modern jazz or so-called reality shows. Apparently I’m not alone. My dining companions gave Altu’s cuisine a collective “meh.”

Let’s start with the bread, known in Ethiopia as injera. The bread is ubiquitous on Altu’s menu, and it’s nothing like the bread most Americans eat. It is fermented and spongy. One of my dinner partners compared it to a crepe doused with vinegar. I smiled and said to another dinner partner, Bruce, that the bread is an acquired taste. His reply: “I’m 78 — I don’t have time to acquire the taste.”

For dinner, we ordered a combination plate for two — a bit pricey at $32. A large platter arrived with the aforementioned fermented bread, rolled up tautly into cylinders. There were dollops of cooked collard greens, spiced chick peas and cabbage, as well as chunks of spiced beef and mildly spiced chicken. Serving as an undergarment to the entire feast was, you guessed it, more bread, splayed out on the platter like a runaway pancake.

I’m a devout carnivore, but I have to say that the best things on the platter were the chick peas and collard greens.

On a previous lunchtime visit, I ordered curried chicken stew. Quite tasty. Normally, it’s served on injera. I asked for rice instead, and tried to order a cup of lentil soup to go with the stew. I was told I could not have the soup unless it came as part of the lunchtime special — lentil soup with injera, for a little over $8. I stuck with the stew.

There are some quirky things about Altu’s that, while not off-putting, are worth noting. Beverages? You serve yourself. The bill? You pay at the checkout counter, just like at a Bob Evans restaurant.

And here’s something I really loved, but cannot imagine having Ethiopian roots. Do yourself a favor on a hot day and order one of their smoothies. Lella’s Favorite smoothie, to be exact. It arrives looking as if deep purple silk had been folded inside of the glass. Raspberries, blueberries and banana — one of the best smoothies I’ve ever had.

Altu’s menu is compact and not very diverse, centering on some of the cooked vegetables mentioned previously and, yes, the bread. If “different” is what your stomach cries out for, try this place. But, be prepared. “Acquired taste” is a mandatory asterisk that comes with Altu’s.

Great for a date

As a lifelong Lansingite and intrepid eater, I have no excuse for why, until a month ago, I had never eaten at Altu’s. I knew it was there, nestled into a strip mall near the site of the now-defunct Dollar nightclub (told you I was a townie), and the people I know who had eaten there before all loved it and sang the praises of the lima beans. But I would think about the challenges I have deciphering sushi menus (what is masago, anyway?) and assumed that those problems would pale in comparison to what would arise when I was faced with an Ethiopian menu.

Nevertheless, I made plans to go to Altu’s for a first date. He knew that my mission was to experience the full realm of the menu and was an eager participant.

We met for dinner on a Friday night. After he acquiesced to my desire to order for the both of us, I decided on the Feast for Two, which includes spicy chicken drumsticks, mild beef, lima beans, collard greens and spicy lentils. That’s what the dishes were called. Altu’s has interpreted their menu to make it accessible to the everyday diner, an effort that is much appreciated by this everyday diner.

Our wonderful, attentive, expert server Alellan offered her guidance after we requested it. She told us that our meal would come on a huge platter lined with a spongy, thin, sourdough-y bread, which we would tear apart and use to pick up the food. Forks are available, but only if you want to admit defeat. She warned us to not eat the bread alone, because the sour taste would turn us off. Of course, I had to try it that way — and, of course, Alellan was right. My date was nervous when I ordered the spicy chicken, since he can’t handle spice and believes that “food shouldn’t hurt.” Alellan assured us that the chicken wasn’t anywhere close to inferno hot and gave him a look that said, “You’re screwing this date up.”

We ripped the bread up and scooped up the lima beans first, because they had been so highly recommended. They were indeed the best lima beans I have ever had, but that’s not a hard prize to win. I noticed my handsome dinner companion ignoring the chicken and favoring the mild beef, which was cubed and piled high in the middle of the platter. As I ripped a chunk of chicken off the bone and wrapped it in bread, I asked him if he thought the chicken was too hot.

“I feel like a dragon,” he replied. I disagreed, but found that throwing a piece of cabbage into the mini wrap sandwich tamped down the heat. My favorite dish on the platter, aside from the pickled cabbage used as a garnish, were the collard greens. They were tangy and perfectly cooked to keep their snap

A few weeks later I returned for a lunch date with another ferociously handsome man — my dear old dad — who immediately liked the Caribbean-influenced décor. He chose the spicy beef stew for lunch and I had the spicy chicken stew. My dad, being a typical dad, is weird. He loved the bread (“It’s pleasant and soft.”) and offered a colorful description of his beef stew (“It’s hot, but it’s not super hot.”) I still loved the cabbage and ate it all, but left half of the thick roll of bread on my plate. After the chicken and cabbage, I was full.

Altu’s offers a reasonably priced, very healthy, light meal. They don’t offer beer or wine, but they do have a self-serve soft drink machine and a counter where you can presumably order a fruit smoothie. I would love to see a lunch buffet, which I think would be a favorite of many of my more hippie-leaning friends.

Jumping back to my dinner date: It went so well that our conversation lasted longer than planned, and eventually we were the last people left in the restaurant. I know, people want to go home after a long day and put their feet up, but I absolutely hate when restaurant employees start to sweep the floor, clear the tables or take any other action that makes me feel like they are rushing me. I was irritated to see this happening as we were finishing our dinner. After all, it was only 9 p.m. The night was still a (spicy) spring chicken.

But I’m hoping for another date next month. Stay tuned.

Altu's Ethiopian Cuisine
1312 Michigan Ave., East Lansing

11 a.m.–9 p.m. Tuesday–Saturday;

Closed Sunday-Monday

(517) 333-6925

TO, $$-$$$.