Buna Cafe is a cool Ethiopian place on the block

The days have started to get longer and I am ready, like many of us, to linger in the warm evenings with those I love. Buna Cafe takes its name from a community-driven coffee-brewing ceremony, involving three cups of meticulously roasted, ground and brewed beans. First, Arbol. Second, Tona. Third, Bereka, known as “one for the road”. I invite my husband and two friends who don’t know each other to eat with me at Buna; at the end of our meal, we leave our table with a sweetness that I know will nourish us at least until our next meeting.

Photo: Jessica Yang

We are never in a rush at Buna. Although one of us is behind the others, our server tells us to take our time. We’re sitting on the sidewalk of Baltimore Ave., under a wooden awning laced with fairy lights. I feel like we could wait here forever. When our friend arrives, we order our drinks, accompanied by samosas, beef, chicken. Pom Breeze, a refreshing blend of pomegranate juice, mango nectar and fresh lime, comes with Thai basil. The house blend of shai, a cream simmered with black pepper, cloves, cardamom, thyme and cinnamon, carries a hint of spice, but shares the sweet quality of the pom breeze. Both accentuate, while softening, the heat of crispy samosas. We dip our appetizers in fragrant berbere, which in the CounterJam podcast episode “Injera Etiquette,” host Peter J. Kim calls “every family’s culinary fingerprint,” or, in this case, every Ethiopian restaurant. .

Our server allows us to take our time figuring out what to order. In that same episode of CounterJam, chef Serkaddis Alemu comments that the food she ate was eighty percent “heavy vegetables and grains”, in part because of her religious background. Chef Marcus Samuelsson agrees, calling it “largely vegetarian cuisine.”

Food on a plate
Photo: Jessica Yang

I defer to their advice, ordering a vibrant vegetable combo with khik, a yellow split pea; fasolia, a green bean and carrot stir-fry; and kaye shir, red beets with yellow potatoes. I choose shiro (chickpeas) over misir (red lentils), based on Samuelsson’s point that shiro is the “mother” of food, the “foundation”. Still, some of my companions order the famous wot doro, with warming sauce and tender meat, and chicken tibs, flavored with jalapeños and onions. We enjoy the textures on our plate, the layers of flavors, and although the food is not communal – we eat from separate plates – we enjoy reaching over the table and tasting each other’s orders.

Finally, we’re ready to order dessert, and I turn to our server. He begins to list what’s on offer, hesitates with a smile, then shakes his head.

“Come inside,” he told me. “Come see for yourself.”

He invites me inside less as a customer than a friend, and he laughs when I order one of each dessert, like someone I really know would. The tiramisu ends the meal freshly, unctuous and light with a subtle hint of coffee. The baklava provides an equal share of crunch and flakes. Chocolate cake, although drier, satisfies a craving for cocoa. Ultimately, I swear, this is how a meal should be: flavor built not only by the hand of a skilled chef, but also by the experience of the night.

West Philly has many favorites when it comes to Ethiopian restaurants, and it’s hard to ask anyone to try a new place. There is always someone who will tell you that they like the way a certain place prepares their kale or shiro. There is also a community in loyalty. As Buna reminds us, however, there is always room for each other.

About Walter Bartholomew

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