The cab driver didn't blink when I told him what I wanted. It might have been one of the most unusual requests he'd ever had. But he didn't even look back at me or take a glance in the rearview mirror. He pointed his diminutive blue taxi up the wide boulevard and asked where I was from. As we turned on to Chechnya Street, named because of the apparent anything-goes debauchery that takes place here when the sun goes down, he turned into a de facto tour guide, pointing out the places where one might encounter a prostitute.
But I wasn't seeking thrills of a sexual nature. I wanted to eat. And to eat at a place I may never find on my own. Welcome to Culinary Cab Confessions, a short series about letting cab drivers decide where I'll be eating. There's a long-standing belief that taxi drivers hold the secret to a city's best eateries; not the upscale variety, but the affordable, no frills type; the places where we may never think of going and in neighborhoods where we might rarely venture. Wherever I'm traveling in the world or if I'm home in New York City, I'll be hopping in cabs and telling the driver to take me to wherever he--or she--likes to eat. And then I'll be writing about it. If the driver is hungry and inclined, I'm always happy to have a culinary guide to the restaurant. Lunch is on me.
Today I'm in Addis Ababa, the chaotic capital of Ethiopia. I walked out of my hotel, the Hilton, and jumped in the first taxi I saw. I got lucky. Fekadu Kebede, 27 years old, said he had a special treat in store for me. He looked excited. I'd been here already for almost two weeks and was slowly tiring of the usual local fare. I hoped he had something different up his sleeve. After cruising down relatively tame Chechnya Street (it was still daytime), we made a few twists and turns before navigating onto a bumpy dirt road. "Okay," he said. "We're here." I put my hand on the door knob and then paused. "Come on," he said, beckoning me to get out with a wave. There are no street lights on this road--somewhat typical of Addis--and so at night we would have been wandering into the blackness. Wherever it was Fekadu was taking me. There was no sign to indicate what it was, just two open gates and a hallway flanked by ceiling-to-floor bamboo. "Welcome to Yohannes," he said. "This is the best kitfo in Addis."
I needed no introduction to kitfo. I had read about it in my guidebook and hoped to try it while I was here. Kitfo is an Ethiopian specialty: raw hamburger meat. I know what some of you are thinking: eating uncooked meat in a developing east African country would be about as questionable a decision as Justin Bieber deciding to make a sudden, unexpected appearance wearing ass-less chaps at a NAMBLA convention. The guidebook and everything else aimed at non-Ethiopians strongly recommended to get the cooked version of kifto. But I wanted whatever Fekadu was having. He ordered for us and within minutes small cast iron bowls were set in front of us, each one layered with an ensete leaf. The server plopped a huge mound of minced, raw beef in each bowl, garnished with dollops of soft, spiced cheese. I was nervous. Was this going to be a turning point for this trip? An Ethiopian version of the Delhi Belly, the Addis Ababa Bowel Effusion? Fekadu went first and I followed. It was delicious. Imagine steak tartar but imbued with mitmita, a spicy chili powder and then doused with niter kibbeh, a spice-and-herb-infused butter.
I ate mine so fast that Fekadu scooped some of his kifto into my bowl. As we ate, sometimes with the spoon, other times scooping it up with injera, the ubiquitous spongy bread Ethiopians use as edible silverware, my new friend told me about how he dreams of taking his wife and their seven-year-old son to live in San Diego where his older sister has been living for the last 20 years.
"We will not find kifto there," he said. "But I think that's an okay trade off, no?"
And with that I raised my beer, Fekadu his soda, and our bottles clinked, echoing for a long second to the high ceilings of a restaurant I would have never found on my own. In the end, I took his picture next to his car--yes, that's really Fekadu above--and he drove me back to my hotel.
So, where, you're most certainly wondering, is Yohannes? I couldn't tell you. After all, that's what cab drivers are for.