I don’t understand how all Top of the Town winners garner their acclaim, but Altu’s Ethiopian Cuisine’s taking the Best Vegetarian/Vegan/Gluten Free category makes perfect sense. A consistent, fail-safe Lansing-area institution for the past 25 years, a visit to Altu’s is always a visit to a Flavor Town with a different constituency of tastes than those generally associated with Mayor Fieri’s.
The menu offers a variety of vegetarian and vegan entrees, smoothies and a list of plant-based sides. All entrees are served on your choice of injera bread or steamed rice. While the can’t-miss options for the meat-free are abundant, there is also plenty to please those who enjoy the meat-full.
Altu’s has several “Group Feasts,” which, if you are new to this cuisine, are an excellent way to try everything. A scaled-down version of this is found in their combos, of which I opted for the Meat & Veggie, with spicy beef stew and mild chickpea sauce served over injera. An added side of collard greens was unavoidable.
Injera is pretty neat. A traditional flatbread, in existence since biblical times, is made from the equally-ancient gluten-free grain teff. It’s spongy and chewy, tastes similar to sourdough and serves as the deliciously sauce-soaked base layer for whichever dish you choose. It also shows up on the side of your plate, rolled up like a little towel and ready to be used in place of a fork to scoop up a little bit of this and a little bit of that in delectable combinations of flavor.
The beef stew (chicken is also an option) is oniony and richly spiced, full of tender pieces of sirloin. The peppery heat it boasts is complemented perfectly by my favorite: the velvety, nutty, buttery-without-butter chickpea sauce. Accompanying this and all other entrees is a side of fragrant, cumin-laced cabbage and a small salad dressed in a tongue-tingling, peanut-infused vinaigrette.
Though I did find some sweetness in the lovely tropical smoothie I ordered, Altu’s is truly a haven for those with a savory tooth — and I can imagine especially so for the vegetarian or vegan. Each dish is aromatic, with satisfying heft, and full of distinctly earthy flavors that evoke the toothsomeness of meat even when none is present.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “Cabbage? Earthy? Weird, old Bible grain? Can’t be that good,” I’d suggest you consider the wonder of smelling something incredible cooking, only to learn it’s merely garlic, onions and oil. Altu’s takes what could be regarded as the most humble ingredients and does a kind of alchemy, turning out stews and sauces that are vivid and complex, creating a mosaic of flavors and colors on the plate that complement each other in the most organic and satisfying of ways.
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