Eat Out: Asmara

Central Square’s Asmara does Eritrean right, but don’t forget the Purell beforehand

Crazed with laughter and the bitter cold, my roommate and I literally exploded into Asmara, a discreetly nestled Central Square Eritrean eatery, hustling mostly because my feet had frozen (flip-flops offer little in the way of podiatric protection) and, more importantly, because our palates were eager for an escape from dining hall fare.

Asmara’s appeal doesn’t lie in an outward ambience of grandeur; if the dozen glass-top tables anchor the restaurant’s atmosphere in the thoroughly familiar, the more traditional mesobs—woven basket-tables common in Ethiopia and Eritrea—that punctuate the dining space, coupled with the dimly buzzing lighting, compensate by insisting on a thoroughly exotic intimacy.

Let it be known: the food experience at Asmara—in particular, the food itself—is phenomenal. For the uninitiated, Eritrean cuisine is an arcane affair of ginger, coriander, and other spices, making liberal use of aromatics to create savory blends of legumes, leafy veggies, and stewed meats; the stews are served directly on a large injera, a crêpe-like fermented bread that replaces plates, forks, and knives as the Eritrean eating utensil of choice.

Opting for the mesob and bench combo over staid dinner chairs, my roommate and I were forced to devour our sweet-spicy red pepper-smothered chicken and smoked collards—my new go-to plates, no doubt—with only the injera’s help, elbows on thighs and food on our faces. As the couple behind us could attest, the vulnerability inherent in relishing such messy (if delicious) tucker perhaps makes Asmara more appropriate for close friends than first dates: while a nameless fellow diner gave her soiled companion a disinterested stank-eye, my roommate was in quite a different place, busily cackling—as I struggled to stuff myself further, I might add—that with all that damn sauce on my face, I looked more like Heath Ledger’s Joker than I typically do on weekend nights.

Asmara Restaurant, 739 Mass. Ave., Cambridge. (617) 864-7447. Take the Red Line to Central Square and walk towards Harvard. Open M-Th 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m., F-Sat 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m., Sun 4 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Visa/MasterCard accepted. Appetizers ($7.95-8.95), entrées ($12.95-17.95).