Ethiopian food. In the Springs? ... Finally!
No more Denver drives, or, for the uninitiated, no more wondering about those meals minus utensils. Uchenna has arrived in Old Colorado City, and the Nigerian Igbo translation, "God's will," speaks to more than just owner Maya Hetman's answered prayer for a place to establish her own restaurant.
After one bite of her doro wat — small chicken legs smothered in a heavy, mole-like butter and red wine sauce spiked with a berbere spice mix, more undisclosed spices, ginger, garlic and onions — you sense that only a higher power could be responsible for such a soul-warming, brilliant combination of flavors that so gorgeously capture heat, earthiness, richness and, well, love.
"I cook with my heart," says Maya, who insists on going by her first name as she visits with us near the end of her usual double shift. "I don't do this for money, but because I love cooking and feeding people and having my family around me."
Coming from anyone else, this statement might sound like empty PR or cliché. To understand the difference when she says it, you have to come in from Colorado Avenue, walking between bookcases lined with decorative tiles (sold to raise money for fistula sufferers in her home country), to have a seat at one of Uchenna's simple, bare tables.
Scratch and sniff
Native to Ethiopia's Eastern Harer region, one of eight children and a speaker of nine languages, Maya is unlike anyone else you'll ever meet. She radiates a disarming and endearing sweetness, even hugging you upon departure. Eating at Uchenna offers a unique restaurant experience in part because of her charm and sincerity.
But it's unique also in flavor, even if you're familiar with other Ethiopian spots. Here's why, and something you need to understand before enduring the industry-defying, potentially infuriating and lengthy wait times inherent to the outfit: This is slow food, and the most tangible definition of the gastronomic movement's core principles I've seen locally, to date.
"You're literally walking into my home when you walk in that door," says Maya, who doesn't actually live in the building, but does take all the time she needs to produce and serve her mostly organic, from-scratch and gluten-free food. We waited more than an hour for anything besides orange water iced tea and rosewater lemonade samples to hit the table one night. (Both, by the way, are floral and delicious and well worth the $1.50 for a full size.) She and her daughter, a high school senior, do all of the cooking, pastry baking and serving of eight tables, with a little side-work help from her husband and college-aged son.
She says that by tradition in her province, women are taught how to cook and execute all of the family recipes. Those recipes stay guarded, meaning I can't tell you much more than the menu does; Maya politely deflects ingredient queries. She does, however, share a story about a local Ethiopian man who recently dined at Uchenna and said her doro wat is the best he's ever had.
Start to finish
Looking past the chicken, Uchenna offers beef, lamb and seafood Ethiopian plates as well as an equally long vegetarian list. There's also a Mediterranean menu of soups, salads, sandwiches and pasta and pizza (a few in each category), from which we only sampled an excellent bowl of French onion soup and a unique gyro (each $7) that sports delicious, thin-sliced beef strips in a fluffy pita with pickled vegetables.
The best way to sample the Ethiopian fare widely is to add a meat dish ($8.25 to $12.50) to a vegetarian combo ($12.75); all orders are served family-style on a large metal platter lined with injera, a spongy, pancake-like, fermented teff-flour bread that's also served on the side for pinching and scooping food.
The combo features variously spiced and sauced and uniformly interesting miser alecha and miser wat (both lentil dishes), shro wat (ground chickpeas) and atakilt 1 (string beans) and 2 (cabbage and potatoes). The yebeg alecha (lamb) and shrimp/scallop plates should be tried after the doro wat, the latter featuring a dark, lovely awaze paste made with berbere and other spices.
Samboussas (a generous four for $3) make a nice starter, with chopped cheese, veggie, beef or chicken inside pastry triangles. Save room for one of the best baklavas around, as well as delicate and delicious sargili (rolled baklava) and katayef (almond, pistachio and honey in a shredded wheat wrap) for dessert (each $1.99).
I could have written paragraphs trying to describe each flavor and the intricacies of these colorful dishes, but I'd rather you discover them on your own, now that you know a little about Maya. I will say that Uchenna's opening is the most exciting and vitalizing for our food scene since the Curry Leaf brought us a taste of Sri Lanka. Be patient, and a spectacular woman and cuisine will open like flowers before you.