Buna Cafe is a Cool Ethiopian Spot on the Block

A newer Ethiopian restaurant in West Philly offers culinary favorites, along with an atmosphere that matches the neighborhood’s collective spirit.

Samosa on a plate
Photo: Jessica Yang

The days have started to stretch longer, and I am ready — as so many of us are — to linger in the warm evenings with the ones I love. Buna Cafe takes its name from a community-oriented coffee-making 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; by the end of our meal, we leave our table with a sweetness that I know will nourish us at least until our next meeting.

A glass of Pom Breeze
Photo: Jessica Yang

We are never rushed at Buna. Though one of us is later than the rest, our server tells us to take our time. We are sitting on the sidewalk on Baltimore Ave., under a wooden awning laced with string lights. I have a sense we could wait here forever. When our friend comes, we order our drinks, alongside samosas, some beef, some chicken. The pom breeze, a refreshing mix of pomegranate juice, mango nectar and fresh lime, pops with Thai basil. The home blend shai, cream stewed with black pepper, cloves, cardamom, thyme and cinnamon, carries an edge of spice, but shares the sugary quality of the pom breeze. Both accentuate, while softening, the heat from the crisp samosas. We dip our appetizers into fragrant berbere, which, in the CounterJam podcast episode “Injera Etiquette,” host Peter J. Kim calls the “culinary fingerprint of each family,” or, in this case, each Ethiopian restaurant.

Our server lets us take our time as we consider what to order. In that same CounterJam episode chef Serkaddis Alemu comments that the food she ate was eighty percent “heavy vegetables and grains,” partially because of her religious background. Chef Marcus Samuelsson is in agreement, calling it a “largely vegetarian cuisine.”

Food on a plate
Photo: Jessica Yang

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

At last, we are ready to order dessert, and I turn to our server. He starts to list what is on offer, falters with a smile, and then shakes his head.

“Just come inside,” he tells me. “Come see for yourself.”

He invites me inside less as a customer and more as a friend, and he laughs when I order one of each dessert, just how someone I really know would. The tiramisu ends the meal coolly, smooth and light with a subtle hint of coffee. The baklava provides an equal share of crunch and flake. The chocolate cake, while drier, satisfies a need for cocoa. In the end, I swear, this is how a meal should be: the flavor built not only through a deft chef’s hand, but also through the experience of the night.

West Philly boasts many favorites when it comes to Ethiopian restaurants, and it is hard to ask anyone to try out a new spot. There is always someone who will tell you that they love the way a certain place prepares their collard greens or their shiro. There is community in loyalty, too. As Buna reminds us, though, there is always room for each other.

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