With the demise last summer of Monroe Street's excellent Ethiopian restaurant Yirgalem, Buraka now stands as the only African restaurant in Madison. Perhaps better known as a food cart on the Library Mall, Buraka also maintains a brick-and-mortar restaurant in the basement at 543 State Street.
While Yirgalem had the finish of fine dining (even though you were eating with your hands), Buraka has the candlelit allure of the sort of place written up in travel guidebooks like Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel or highlighted on "Rachael Ray's ______on $40 a Day" -- clean, good food, bargain prices, unpretentious but welcoming atmosphere.
The lower-level space is anything but depressing, with an inviting wood bar and African-themed art on the walls. The restaurant is broken into two smaller dining areas. A list of tropical-themed cocktails is scribbled on a board behind the bar, and Tusker, a Kenyan beer, is also served.
Start with a samosa, a perfectly deep-fried dough triangle filled with a ground beef mix and served with a spicy dipping sauce that tastes kind of like a remoulade, minus the pickles. Follow it up with what may be Buraka's signature dish, the excellent chicken peanut stew, a simple but comforting blend of chicken and red potatoes in a peanutty gravy ($10 for the dinner serving, $6.50 at lunch).
Like all of Buraka's entrees, it can be ordered over rice or served atop injera, the spongey sourdough crepe/pancake/bread that is the base for traditional African meals. I'd recommend the injera. Tear off a handful, scoop up a portion of stew, and devour.
Other favorite stews include the siga alicha (beef and potatoes in a mild curry sauce), vegetarian alicha, dorowat (chicken and carrots), minchet abish (beef, tomatoes and lentils) and begwot (lamb stew). A newish entree is the sweeter coconut curry chicken, made with coconut milk and yams. All the stews are rich and comforting, not particularly spicy to my taste (even when marked with the "hot pepper" symbol). The injera is nice and sour, which is a good thing. While I've never had a bad stew at Buraka, it's a somewhat milder version of African cuisine, judging from the food I've had at African restaurants in other (American) cities.
Dinners come with an iceberg lettuce salad -- which arrived pre-soaked with a sharp vinaigrette. Missing is the wonderful tart lunchtime salad of lentils and onions, a vast improvement over the iceberg. Also missing from Buraka's entrees is an African staple, greens (gomen --collards). Also AWOL is ayib -- a traditional fresh cottage cheese. It would be nice to have expanded offerings from this kitchen, especially because this is now Madison's only option for African cuisine.
You can order any two dishes as a combo plate for $12, but it's not quite the same as the delight of all the pick-and-choose you get at African restaurants with more expansive offerings when you share multiple dishes and sides on a massive injera.
You can finish your meal off with a dessert, though it is not a traditional African course. But tiramisu, key lime ice cream or a biscotti amaretto torte will go well with an espresso made with Buraka's special Ethiopian coffee.