If you are anything like me, your first thought upon tucking into lunch at Moya Grill (567A Melville Ave., 314-833-6621), the weeks-old Ethiopian spot in the Delmar Loop, won't be "hmmm, interesting" or even "how delicious!" Instead, you will find yourself asking, "What took them so long?"
These days, you can get just about any cuisine in the U.S. in a fast-casual setting. What Chipotle did for burritos is now happening with pizza, with calzones, with salads, with Chinese food — even, here in St. Louis, with Filipino food (at the excellent Guerilla Street Food). But up until discovering Moya, I hadn't been aware of any fast-casual Ethiopian, even in L.A.'s Little Ethiopia district, which is filled with excellent restaurants from the east African nation. And as this place shows, the combination of ancient cooking techniques and quick, pared-down presentations is nothing short of dynamite.
This is, after all, incredibly approachable food. Ethiopian restaurants generally serve two types of dishes. A wot is a thick stew of minced meat or vegetables, frequently lentils. Tibs, meanwhile, are a classic saute — mostly meat, stir-fried with onion, peppers and garlic. Both are served on the spongy bread called injera; you use it instead of silverware, pinching and mopping up hunks of meat or veggie. It's quite tasty.
... and, as it turns out, it also lends itself quite easily to the fast-casual treatment. Stroll up to the counter at Moya and choose a wot or a tibs, and then pick how you want it served: the classic style, with rolls of injera on the side; fit-fit, which is tossed with pieces of injera for fork eaters (although fingers are OK, too); or ba-rooz, which is served with rice in a style Americans may be more used to, thanks to the ubiquity of Mexican food here. Pro tip: Order yours in the classic style. Sometimes, the old ways really are the best.
The space is stylish, all blond wood and clean lines, with big windows facing Melville Avenue. You order at the counter, and service is friendly and fast; if your visit is anything like mine, they'll have your lunch to your table in just a few short minutes. You can also get it to go.
Speaking of to-go, in addition to the very tasty tibs and the various wot options, Moya offers a pair of sandwiches, ready-made for American efficiency. The Gabi Wrap, at $7.50, is particularly approachable, the perfect choice for someone who wants to dip his foot into Ethiopian food without diving all the way.
It's actually kind of like an Ethiopian take on a Taco Bell soft taco, only with clean flavors and fresh ingredients. Minced beef with mild spices is served in a wrap along with tomatoes, chickpeas, lettuce and a light sauce. Unlike Taco Bell, it makes for a very satisfying lunch.
Moya Grill is the brainchild of the family behind Meskerem, the more traditional Ethiopian restaurant on South Grand, and it's clear from the little touches here that the owners are restaurant veterans. From the easy-to-follow menu to the from-scratch food, their competence is on display in every detail.
Lots of places are pulling out of the Loop these days. Moya, though, gives them something to miss. But maybe it won't be forever — because I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to see this concept take off, across the city and maybe even beyond that.
Who's to say in ten years there won't be a Moya on every corner? Hey, it worked for Chipotle.
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