Brewerytown’s Era Offers Traditional Ethiopian Cuisine, Community Vibes
Walk into Era at the northeast corner of Poplar and 27th Streets in Brewerytown and your first impression might be that it is a classic neighborhood corner bar.
There is a big, wooden horseshoe bar in the middle, a pool table in the back, a city-wide special — featuring Lionshead as the beer, which made this Wilkes-Barre boy’s heart sing — and a few TVs playing whatever the sport or event of interest may be at that point in time.
Spend a few minutes at the bar, however, and a waft of chili peppers, cloves, garlic and clarified butter start to creep to your seat from the small back kitchen. Aside from being a favorite neighborhood spot to drink at, Era doubles as North Philadelphia’s crown jewel of traditional Ethiopian cuisine.
Era’s story begins the way many of Philadelphia’s great bars and restaurants do, with a person coming to America for a better life and bringing their culture to the neighborhood. For Era, that person is the owner, Aklilu Senbeta (he goes by “Aki” for short).
“A long time ago, there were a lot of problems in Ethiopia — when there used to be monarchy, when the military overthrew the king, there was a lot of craziness in Ethiopia,” Senbeta said. “There was a lot of killing and fighting in Ethiopia at the time.”
What Senbeta is referring to is the Ethiopian Civil war, which occurred when the Marxist group known as the Derg — short for Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police and Territorial Army — staged a military coup d’état against the country’s longtime monarch Emperor Haile Selassie I. What followed was a bloody civil war that lasted over 16 years. By the time Senbeta left southern Ethiopia in 1982, Human Rights Watch estimates there were a staggering 280,000 civilian casualties.
Upon arriving in Philadelphia, Senbeta immediately got to work. “After I came to America, I was working any job,” he said, laughing. In 2002, twenty years of hard work later, Senbeta decided to open Era. “I try, if I can, to make myself useful, create my own work where I’m needed,” he said. Now Senbeta has his bar and lives in Philadelphia with his wife, 3 kids, brother, sister, nieces and nephews.
When asked if opening a new business was difficult, Senbeta simply said “no” with a smile and explained that the neighborhood may have had something to do with it.
“Well this is a great neighborhood to be in, Era is really built up by the neighborhood. They really did work for me to make this a neighborhood bar,” Senbeta explained. Not only did the community embrace Era as a bar, but his Ethiopian cuisine was a welcome change to the food found all over Philadelphia.
“They just encouraged me to keep doing ethnic food. They told me, ‘we have pizza everywhere, we have cheesesteak everywhere,’” he added. “’It’s something different we need, keep doing that.’ They really helped me — they guided me, they gave me advice, they wanted to be supportive.”
For those who have not yet tried Ethiopian food, it can quite friendly to specialty diets. Many Ethiopian dishes are served with a sourdough flatbread called injera, which happens to be both gluten free (as it is made from teff flour) and high in fiber, iron and calcium. Because of Ethiopia’s large Orthodox Christian population and their fasting habits, there are also many different vegetarian options available.
Senbeta’s personal favorite item on the menu? He pondered and responded, “the tibs … Yesiga Tibs. And Kitfo.” Tibs is a traditional Ethiopian dish that is a sort of a cross between stir fry and stew, served with injera. Era’s Yesiga Tibs are described as tender, lean beef cubes sautéed with onions, jalapeno, with a touch of fresh garlic, tomatoes, and Ethiopian sauces.
Senbeta’s other favorite dish, Kitfo, is a sort of Ethiopian beef tartare, where raw beef is marinated in a mitmita (a spice blend made from African bird’s eye chili peppers, cardamom seed, cloves, and salt) and an herbal clarified butter called niter kibbeh.
Upon returning to the bar with Senbeta, it was packed and loud with patrons of all ages and races. One patron playing pool stopped to give the owner a big hug on his way in. Above all else, Senbeta enjoys being a strong member of the community he calls home. “The best part of this neighborhood is everyone knows each other, everybody helps each other,” he laughed. “Nobody gets away with anything.”