As a foodie, I make a point of trying as many unfamiliar foods as I can. I’ve had British, French, German, Mexican, Italian, Russian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, and other cuisines from all around the world. I am least familiar with cuisine from Africa. Last year around the new year, I vowed to take more “tiny adventures.” This concept belongs to the Tiny Adventure Club, who encourages people to step out of their comfort zone. Trying Ethiopian food for the first time seemed like a good way to get started.
Abyssinia Restaurant & Cafe is a tiny hole-in-the-wall downtown down the street from the VA hospital in downtown Phoenix (7th St. & Indian School). It was a rainy night when I tried to hunt down the small restaurant, tucked into the corner of a nondescript strip mall. I must have driven past this place a million times and never noticed it. In fact, I passed by it the first time by accident. The sign on the building isn’t as clear, and I may have been distracted by a neighboring neon sign.
I was wary at first. The exterior doesn’t stand out, and the neighborhood isn’t the greatest. Stepping in from the cold rainy night was like being transported to a new world. The interior was brightly decorated. Every table was lit with a small candle. The portrait of an unfamiliar monarch hangs on the wall.
The tables were spacious, but there’s always something off-putting about the sticky plastic covers often placed over table mats.
There were others in the restaurant, but it was quiet. We were seated in a back corner for privacy. The staff seemed to consist of two people, a man and woman. Rather than feel ignored, the two seemed to do the work of five people. They visited often to check on us with bright smiles.
Fun fact: Ethiopia is considered the birthplace of coffee. I ordered a traditional coffee ceremony. Naturally I had no idea what was in store. The female employee emerged from the kitchen with a hot skillet of coffee beans. She was roasting them by hand and had come to waft the strong, earthy scent for the table.
After checking the Yelp, it came to my attention that the female employee is the owner. She is a warm, friendly woman prepared for our unfamiliarity with her dishes. At her suggestion, we ordered an Azeb Gouda Mixed Platter. This way we could try a little of everything. Most Ethiopian dishes are served with a thin, not-quite sour bread made from fermented teff flour called injera. Atop our large injera were a variety of colorful dishes similar to the consistency of stew.
According to their menu, this dish offers a sample of zilzil tibs (braised beef with peppers), gomen besiga (beef with greens), quanta firfir (sun-dried meat sauteed with garlic, onion, and special butter), and Ethiopian cheese. I’ve done my best to identify each separate component. I don’t recognize every dish, so I wonder if they provided a unique platter to give us an authentic first experience. Extra injera is divided so you can scoop up one (or more!) of the colorful offerings.
The zil-zil tibs are located in the middle. It’s no wonder why they made it the star of the platter. It was by far my favorite, savory and a perfect consistency. I was afraid it might be mushy. At the bottom of the plate is the gomen besiga, slightly sour, slightly bitter greens reminiscent of collard greens. On the left is quanta firfir, providing a brighter element in a plate of fermented and sour dishes. The yellow dish consists of corn, which offered a sweetness to cleanse my palette.
This was my first time having Ethiopian food, so I know I’m definitely not the expert. However, I can tell you that I enjoyed every aspect of my meal. The restaurant was cozy and quiet, perfect for a more adventurous but still intimate date night. The staff was kind and accomodating to guests who are unfamiliar to their fare. The coffee was strong and rich, and the food was well balanced with a variety of flavors. Between the amount of food and the vehicle for eating (your hands and some bread), I’d highly recommend this for a group of friends looking to have fun and try something new.
If you’d like more information, check out their website!
Price: $10-$20 per person