Everyone loves an underdog story. And Samson Yosef’s is truly a feel-good, up-by-the-bootstraps tale. After fleeing his native Ethiopia nearly three decades ago to escape the Red Terror and after almost a year of red tape, he was finally able to open his tiny Market Bistro next door to the Arlington Heights 7-Eleven he’s owned for years (“Ethiopia to Camp Bowie,” June 4, 2014). Although Dallas has several Ethiopian restaurants, Fort Worth has only one: Samson’s.
Yosef and wife Jenber take turns bringing out food and helming the cash register. When you park in one of the limited spaces in the lot dominated by the convenience store, the first thing that hits you is the aroma. It smells a little like Indian cuisine, which may be expected –– the cultures share similar spices. But the dominant seasoning in Samson’s cooking is berebere, a combination of peppers, onions, garlic, fenugreek, ginger, turmeric (which gives most of the meals their yellow glow), and other secret ingredients that Jenber smilingly declined to reveal.
Perhaps the coolest aspect of Ethiopian cuisine is its adaptability. Vegetarian or vegan? Most of the food is plant-based. Meat lover? No problem. On the days when they’re not fasting for religious reasons, Ethiopians love beef, chicken, and lamb. If you’re gluten-free, you actually get to eat bread! The gluten-free grain teff forms the base of Ethiopian cuisine’s injera bread, which can also be used as a utensil. The large tortilla-shaped product tastes a little like mild sourdough bread: chewy with a slightly sweet aftertaste. You probably could ask for silverware, but that might mark you as non-adventurous.
At Samson’s, each dish comes out on a large, round silver tray covered by a huge circular piece of injera, with the meat in the center and the veggies all around.
The bite-size chunks of boneless lamb tibs, dressed in a scrumptious garlic-and-rosemary seasoning, were absolutely perfect. If they had any gaminess, you couldn’t tell. And though the menu says they’re finished with allegedly peppery awaze sauce, they delivered only a delicate level of spiciness.
Although the meat tasted fabulous, the star of the platter was the combination of vegetarian dishes. A stew-like mélange in more of that berbere sauce, the miser wat featured lentils whose earthiness was enlivened by some zesty seasoning.
Sensible spicing also perked up the shiro wat (ground chickpeas in berbere), whose texture resembled that of a super-chunky hummus and whose flavor was deep and almost curry-like.
Steamed, chopped, and delirious with garlic seasoning, the collard greens (miser alecha) weren’t as meaty as those you’d find down South or here in Texas, but they were tasty enough.
The best part of the veggie options was the tikil gomen: sautéed cabbage, potatoes, and carrots in a vibrantly yellow, mild turmeric-and-garlic sauce. There was some kind of alchemy at work between the cabbage and the sauce, or maybe it was the way the leafy green had been cooked –– not as crunchy as sauerkraut but still firm, it harmonized wonderfully with the soft potatoes and carrots.
Coffee is so important in Ethiopian culture that it inspired a proverb: “Coffee and love taste best when hot.” Samson’s brew is strong enough to peel the leather off your shoes but has a sweet, slightly spicy finish. The cup of fresh-brewed joe was the perfect finish to an exceptional meal.
One nice thing about a mom-and-pop restaurant is the abundance of cordiality. When Jenber saw that my dining companion and I were almost done, eating the remains of the bread that we had used to sop up most of the flavorful sauces, she asked what our favorite dish was. We said the tikil gomen, so she went ahead and brought out more. Everything, including a can of Diet Coke, arrived on a silver tray.
Samson’s does a hefty take-out business, but taking the food to go means you don’t get to fully appreciate the meal –– and the Yosefs’ hospitality.
There’s been no shortage of support from Arlington Heights residents, but Samson’s Market Bistro is definitely worth the drive from anywhere in the county.
Samson’s Market Bistro
4307 Camp Bowie Blvd, FW. 214-944-4446. 11am-6pm Sun, 11am-8pm Tue-Sat.
All major credit cards accepted.
Special lamb tibs $13.95
Vegetarian combo $12.95
Ethiopian coffee $1.95