Review by Christine Basile
Looking at the building, it is hard to imagine an Ethiopian restaurant being in part of East Aurora's historic downtown area. Yet, Thea's Restaurant is a welcome and delicious escape. With a large variety of food, it's a gathering place for vegetarians and meat eaters alike, and a cozy stop for a great meal any time of the day.
The outside of the building is a dark green with large bay windows, letting light into the venue. The inside is an exotic industrialized look, transporting the avid food lover to a new dining experience.
After the first steps into the restaurant, I was astounded by the amount of art that hung on the walls of the restaurant. From masks found in Ethiopia to large metal doors that are typically found on grain mills, the mixture is not over-exaggerated, but creates a unique environment.
A few steps further into the restaurant, there is a beautifully adorned bar that is stunning and intriguing. While I did not take part in any drinks, I could not help but be impressed by the amount of quality liquors and the 12 taps scattered throughout the bar. If I find myself back out in East Aurora at night, I know I will be making a stop to experience Thea's nightlife.
Not only was the food great, but the experience as a whole told a story about the culture and flavors of Ethiopia. Each bite of every part of the meal brought the culture alive right inside the small restaurant. The most entrancing part of this restaurant is the different spice blends, such as berbere, a mixture of spices that combine savory and spicy flavors, and cooking methods that are used in Ethiopian cooking.
For an appetizer, I ordered a chickpea dip known as buticha (pictured above; $6). Similar to hummus, this puree of chickpeas was a nice accompaniment to the flatbread that was provided. However, different from hummus, buticha has spice and a whole different depth of flavor. With notes of fresh lemon, tahini, garlic and jalapenos, the dish's flavor was well-rounded and enjoyable bite after bite.
The next dish was a small, complimentary bowl of air-popped popcorn that was brought to the table, sprinkled with some of the house spices that are used while cooking. The server explained that, when coffee makers are harvesting and roasting the beans, popcorn with spices found around the house were used to satiate their appetite throughout the day. The smokiness of the spices and the hint of sea salt that was added to the popcorn brought a new and inventive flavor to a routine treat that caused the bowl to empty quickly.
For the entrees, my guest and I chose to try a little bit of everything and picked the single tasting plates (one vegetarian, one meat plate) to share. When the platters came to the table, I was surprised at the size of the dish itself. The vegetarian single tasting plate ($9.50 for the lunch portion or $14.50 for the dinner portion) came with a large variety of foods.
The bottom of the platter was covered with injera, an Ethiopian flatbread that looks similarly to a pancake, but has the sponginess of a cake - with a hint of lemon zest. Smaller rolls of injera were scattered across the pan.
On top of the injera were mixed collard greens, red lentils, yellow lentils, potatoes and onions, ayib (Ethiopian cottage cheese) and a small salad (with the option of a honey sesame or lemon vinaigrette).
Thea's vegetarian platter.
Similarly, the meat single tasting platter ($11.50 for the lunch portion or $18.50 for dinner) had some of the same items from the vegetarian platter. This tasting featured some of Thea's popular meat dishes, including its mild beef stew and spicy chicken breast, along with the yellow lentils, mixed collard greens and potatoes and onions.
As I ate the meal, I was impressed with the complexity of the flavors that came with each part of the meal. Every bite was full of earthiness, and offered succulent flavors of herbs and spices such as cumin and turmeric. Along with the fresh spice blends of garlic, onion and herbs, each bite transported the taste buds to Ethiopia, bringing the culture to life.
Each tasting had a different level of heat. The yellow lentils and collard greens had a slight zing to them. The red lentils and the spicy chicken breast brought the heat, but still had a great depth of flavor.
To put it simply: amazing! The service at Thea's is among the best I've had all year.
From the moment I walked in until the moment I left, the service at Thea's was simply phenomenal. Not only was our waitress very patient and kind, she also was extremely knowledgeable. My water glass was never empty and all questions were answered and explained. Not only was it a tasty experience, but it was also an enjoyable and educational one for me.
After visiting Thea's for lunch, I plan to return there in the near future and experience more of the Ethiopian dishes this restaurant has to offer. With high hopes for the future, and a full stomach, I give Thea's a 5 out of 5. I cannot wait to return to this unique and delicious eating spot.
Thea's Restaurant is located at 634 Main St., East Aurora.