“Do you have utensils?” the customer in line in front of me asks.
The woman at the window of the food truck smiles and shakes her head apologetically.
“No, you eat with your hands.”
So it goes when you lunch at Montgomery County’s Ethiopian food truck Mesob on Wheels, which takes its name from the hand-woven straw tables traditionally dined on throughout the East African country. Silver Spring residents Nebeyou Lemma, 37, and his fiancee, Pina Ghetahun, 36, both native Ethiopians, opened for business Sept. 11, the first day of the Ethiopian new year. You can’t miss their truck, which is covered with giant, artfully composed pictures of their food, with helpful captions to aid the uninitiated.
Lemma, who attended Lincoln Culinary Institute in Columbia to hone his culinary chops, does most of the cooking. Ghetahun, who tends bar part-time at La Tasca in Chinatown, takes the orders and helps prep the food off-site. The menu usually contains about 10 options, including a strong selection of vegetarian choices. Everything is made from scratch with the exception of the injera bread, which they buy from the District’s Enat Ethiopia Grocery and Bakery.
You can mix and match your lunch, which will set you back only $7 for two stews or salads (additional items, $2 each). Each order comes with several rolls of injera — your carb-rich utensil — which is sheer fun to rip apart and dab into this deeply spiced, lovingly prepared cuisine. It was a cold, gray day when I visited Mesob on Wheels, but the food warmed me up.
“We learned by watching our moms,” says Lemma. “It feels like home cooking.”
Lemma’s mother taught him well. The siga wot (spicy beef stew) is deeply flavored, the result of six hours’ low and slow simmering in clarified butter and approximately 15 spices including bitter rue, cardamom and aromatic besobila (Ethiopian basil). Its heat sneaks up on you, yet never overwhelms.
A fresh tomato salad with red onions and green peppers provides a fleeting break before I plunge back in for another bite of the palate-tingling wot. Yellow split pea stew cooked with sweet streamers of onions is equally winning but lacks the afterburn.
By the end of the meal, I am dabbing the final ragged bits of the injera into the far corners of the plastic foam takeout container to sop up every last bit of sauce. This isn’t just some of the best Ethiopian food of recent memory; it is one of the finest meals I’ve ever enjoyed at a food truck.
— Nevin Martell
Mesob on Wheels in Montgomery County. 240-367-2217. twitter.com/mesobonwheels. Hours: Tuesdays through Fridays, noon to 2 p.m.