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Tadu a friendly spot for Ethiopian in the Tenderloin

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Sambussa – a delicious meat pie of sorts – is a great way to start an Ethiopian meal at Tadu. SPECIAL TO S.F. EXAMINER/MICHAEL ARES

I can well imagine that Tadu Ethiopian Kitchen, a small eatery in the Tenderloin, would be welcome to San Francisco residents who habitually cross the Bay Bridge to get their Ethiopian food fix. It’s not as big as some Ethopian restaurants in Oakland, but it has its own charm, and the food is fresh and authentic.

Tadu has a spare, cafe-like space with a colorful, cheerful menu above the cash register and fewer than 10 tables. Equally as cheery is the proprietor, Elias Shawel, who went out of his way to ensure we knew our way around the menu.

Shawel almost steered us away from the kitfo, because it’s a raw preparation of beef — perhaps not for the squeamish. My dining companion and I steered ourselves back toward it. It’s a carnivore’s delight — delicious doused with mitmita, a spicy-tingly, fiery red ground pepper condiment. The kitfo’s wonderful texture, and creamy, almost lemon-y flavor come from clarified butter.

An easier introduction to Tadu are the lamb tibs – morsels of earthy lamb deeply infused with chili and onion and cooked tender. I couldn’t stop eating the dish. It was great next to the vegetarian combination, which featured a favorite of mine: misir wot (well-spiced split lentils) as well as alicha tikil gomen, a mild and comforting blend of potato and cabbage.

Heat levels tended to stay mild to moderate — friendly to more sensitive tongues, but  easy to remedy for the less faint of heart. Mitmita, dried chilis, may be daintily (or liberally, for the brave) applied for needle-pricking heat, which is followed by a delayed-reaction, smoky burn. Imported by Shawel and hand-ground for extra freshness and character, mitmita is delivered in a bowl to your table by request.  Awaze, a milder, smokier paste made with berbere spice mix, is another topping diners can dollop more liberally.

If you have the appetitite, get the sambussa – the Ethiopian version of samosas – to start. Stuffed with beef, they’re mildly spicy, and fried, covered in little bubbles. They’re surprisingly light; the meat is finely chopped, and bright with spices.

One thing that makes Tadu stand out from other Ethiopian eateries is that the servers really try to translate Ethiopian food for those who aren’t familiar with it. Tadu is an unintimidating place to eat and quite friendly — perhaps friendlier than some popular Ethiopian spots in Oakland. It’s also small, and the food is served in a timely manner.

If anything, the food is deeply soulful, as is the gentle-voiced man who runs the place. During the day, for all intents and purposes, it’s a peaceful one-man show. In the evening, it fills up quickly with leisurely diners, leaving some to stand around in front of the door, hoping a table will become available.

Tadu Ethiopian Kitchen
Location: 484 Ellis St., S.F.
Contact: (415) 409-6649, http://taduethiopiankitchen.com/
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
Suggested dishes: Sambussa ($4), lamb tibs ($13.95), vegetarian combination ($11.95)
Price range: $4 to  $14.50
Reservations: Not accepted

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