When I met my friend A for lunch at Moya, I learned she hadn’t eaten Ethiopian since a life-altering experience in 2002.
A’s story involved sweet nostalgia, for an evening spent with a tall, elegant Ethiopian man. The night climaxed with him scooping up delicious, home-cooked morsels and feeding her by hand. “Could any other Ethiopian food compete?” asked my friend.
Ah, probably not. Still, I hoped our meal might stir some remembering of that night, a catalyst to awaken her rose-tinted memories.
Moya, in particular, may have been ill-suited to the task at hand.
As many know, this is the restaurant’s second incarnation, after its original space was water-damaged last year. The new spot is only a few blocks away, but the style distance is vast.
I was immediately struck with the space’s glass-and-concrete neutrality; it seems like a place to order bagel sandwiches or salad by the ounce. A few pieces of pottery and a bright wall mural are the only outward hints at Moya’s identity.
The first Moya was a sit-down restaurant, warmly lit and decked out with colorful African art. The new spot, catering to a SoMa lunch crowd, opts for starker décor, lower price points and counter service.
But more importantly — to me, at least — the menu’s exuberance has been reined in for the American palate.
“The other place was more like food we eat in Ethiopia,” said owner Fana Alemayehu. “Now we cater to the people who are here … most people don’t like so much spice.”
Moya’s shuro is chickpea stew made with a 12-spice blend that Alemayehu flies back after her periodic trips to Ethiopia. I was braced for a transformative, exotic flavor; besides an underlying tang, the wash of spices was nearly undetectable.
In the kik alicha, a yellow pea stew, there were subtle notes of garlic and ginger. A wee chili kick in the red lentil dish misir wot raised half an eyebrow.
Collard greens and another stew made of cabbage, carrots and green beans were well-cooked, but I wanted to yell, “Crank it up!”
Somewhat less restraint was shown in the fule appetizer, warm black beans served with sour cream and a mix of diced onions, tomatoes and jalapeños (sound familiar, Mexican fans?)
Kitfo is a raw chopped beef dish, served two ways. The milder “special” version incorporated collard greens and cheese, oddly evoking a room-temperature, deconstructed lasagna. The regular version had a searing heat born of chili powder and spiced clarified butter.
The tender, buttery chicken dish doro tibs also radiated intensity. Flavored with jalapeños and berbere — a lavish, peppery spice blend — this dish matched my fondest remembrances of past Ethiopian meals.
Don’t get me wrong — I would eat here again. Everything tasted fresh, nothing was too heavy or oily, and I couldn’t get enough of Moya’s tangy injera, an Ethiopian staple. Plus the prices were more than fair; you can’t beat $8.50 for the lunchtime vegetarian sampler.
Maybe Alemayehu is right, and her customers prefer their spices muted (certainly most tables were filled during my visits). I just wish she’d return to the Moya of old, the one that trusted we could handle the intense and the unfamiliar.
Like a decade-old romance, these are the flavors that never let you go.
Location: 121 Ninth St. (at Minna Street), S.F.
Contact: (415) 431-5544, www.eatmoya.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 4 to 9 p.m. Saturdays, closed Sundays
Price range: $8.50 to $10.95 for lunch; $7.95 to $15 for dinner
Recommended dishes: Doro tibs ($9.50-$10.95), vegetarian sampler ($8.50-$15), kitfo ($9.50-$13.95)
Credit cards: All major
Reservations: Not accepted