Some local ethnic restaurants are providing low-cost dining adventures.

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Some local ethnic restaurants are providing low-cost dining adventures.

The nice thing about inexpensive restaurants like Noodles & Company (see review) is that their prices are low enough that even tightwad customers feel like they can eat out more than a couple of times a week. The downside is that the food at these fast-casual joints isn't very adventurous -- although Noodles & Company has a more exotic menu than competing chains such as Chipotle and Panera Bread Company.

But struggling independent restaurant owners are going mano a mano with the corporate chains by offering some real meal deals, too. Quite a few ethnic venues are putting out modestly priced lunch buffets -- ranging from $5 to $7 with a beverage -- as a way of inducing patrons to come in and sample unfamiliar fare.

For example, the five-week-old Nigat Restaurant (3613 Broadway), owned by Addis Ababa native Nadew Wildemariam, has a small but tastefully laden buffet of Ethiopian dishes. It's not an elaborate selection (the steam table in the center of the dining room holds only nine trays), but Wildemariam's choices provide a nice way for diners to get acquainted with Ethiopia's uncomplicated but satisfying cuisine.

The Unofficial Guide to Ethnic Cuisine & Dining in America describes Ethiopian fare as being "simple as one, two, three -- one utensil, two stews and three sauces." The utensil is edible -- soft, spongy injera bread -- and is traditionally used instead of fork or spoon (though Nigat has those, too) for scooping up dishes such as stewed lentils, vividly yellow cooked cabbage or cubed beef in either a mahogany-colored spicy sauce or a milder brown version.

One recent afternoon, I was the only one in the dining room (which retains the décor of its previous tenant, the Mediterranean Café), and I initially thought that Wildemariam had set out too few choices to make an interesting lunch. Besides the beef, cabbage and lentils, there was a tray of chicken legs in a spicy sauce flavored with pungent berberé, another of green beans cooked with carrots, a bunch of cooked collard greens with onions, a vat of puréed beans, and another of stewed split beans.

But I stuffed myself silly mixing the distinctive flavors and textures in pieces of injera. I left feeling comfortably full, even though the meal, including a cup of tea, set me back only about seven bucks.

Wildemariam named his restaurant after his mother. His sister Selam, however, took a more familiar name for her Ethiopian restaurant. The Blue Nile recently opened in the old Cascone's spot at 20 East Fifth Street.

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