We've already explored some of North and West Phoenix's best Eastern European markets and restaurants. Now, we put another neighborhood's culinary culture under the microscope: the stretch of Ethiopian restaurants, cafes, and markets in Central Phoenix between Indian School and McDowell roads.
Here are our three favorites:
A T Oasis Coffee & Tea Shop
4613 East Thomas Road
The Setting: A T Oasis, named for the owner, Aisha, is different from our the other spots on this list in that it's more a cafe than a restaurant. As such, it's smaller and orders are placed at the counter. A few chairs and tables are scattered out front, but inside, it's a comfortable environment. The smell of spices and roasting coffee is unmistakable, and pictures of Haile Selassie and Ethiopian vistas provide some decor. There are a few bookshelves with coffee beans and assorted books and knickknacks for sale, and smooth jazz plays often in the background.
The Food: The main draw at A T Oasis is the coffee. It's roasted in-house using Ethiopian beans, and the flavor is excellent. The menu does have some Western coffee items — including lattes and chai teas — but the real highlight is the Ethiopian ginger coffee, which tastes exactly like it sounds. It's a strange but comforting combination of sweet, bitter, and spicy. The more intrepid can also participate in a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, complete with complimentary biscotti and coffee served out of a gourd, or order from an array of both Ethiopian and American-style pastries, as well as a menu of some injera and pita dishes and wraps.
The Verdict: A T Oasis is an easy substitute for your regular coffee shop. The coffee is delicious, and the food is pretty good, too. It's a comfortable atmosphere with reasonable pricing, and you might be the first of your friends to find it.
Abyssinia Restaurant and Cafe
842 East Indian School Road
The Setting: You'll find Abyssinia Restaurant and Cafe in a typical metro Phoenix strip mall, but inside the restaurant is quite striking. Blue and white tile walls are adorned with traditional Ethiopian fabrics and decorations. Portraits of Haile Selassie appear frequently, along with images of landscapes and smiling people. The scent of spices and stewing meats and vegetables is almost overwhelming when you enter. This is a husband-and-wife-run joint, and the chances of running into anyone speaking English are pretty slim.
The Food: Abyssinia serves a fairly traditional Ethiopian menu — there are no intrusions by standard Mediterranean or Middle Eastern cuisine here. It is divided between breakfast (definitely worth stopping in for), vegetarian entrées, and meat and lamb entrees. Within these categories, there are several excellent options. Tibs, or cubed meats with spices and vegetables, are a safe bet, as are the various wats, stewed meats or vegetables that are a staple of Ethiopian food. The most notable mainstay is injera, a spongy sourdough flat bread that is served under, over, and with more or less everything. It is used both as food and as utensil. For the indecisive, the good choice is agelgel: a sampler platter with a variety of different wats and tibs served on a piece of injera. It is remarkably good. Each item on the platter — there are about eight, including collard greens, cabbage, beef tibs, two kinds of lentils, and two kinds of meat wats — is excellent. Flavors of garlic, paprika, and the essential Ethiopian spice, berbere, pervade. The meat is tender and delicious, save for the occasional bone. Traditional Ethiopian spiced coffee is worth getting at the end of your meal, too. Pricing is a little on the higher end for Ethiopian food. For example, $16 gets you the agelgel, which has enough food for one to two people. Most other items float around the same price.
The Verdict: Abyssinia Restaurant and Cafe should not be missed if you're looking for excellent Ethiopian food. The atmosphere isn't amazingly impressive, but it feels right. The food is the real treat, and the price is not objectionable.
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Authentic Ethio African
1740 East McDowell Road
The Setting: Authentic Ethio African is hard to miss, but its purpose is also a little difficult to discern from the outside. A massive mural of Haile Selassie covers one exterior wall, and a bright awning and a tiny patio make up the storefront. If you don't look closely — or already know what you're looking for — the fact that it's a restaurant could go unnoticed. And that truly is a pity. The inside is almost as small as the patio. The dining area only consists of a few tables, and you get the impression that it doesn't cater to many who aren't regulars. The kitchen is tucked away into the back of the space, but the sounds and smells of Ethiopian cooking are quite evident. Another plus: the restaurant offers delivery.
The Food: The menu isn't the easiest to navigate, but it has the standard array of wats, tibs, and so on. There doesn't seem to be any obvious sampler platter on the menu, a personal first choice at most Ethiopian restaurants. However, the service is friendly and accommodating — it has a real family-run feel — and it's pretty easy to ask for something not on the menu. The result is a kick-ass sampling of whatever different meats and veggies are in the kitchen on a huge injera, at an incredible price. Twenty bucks got a sampler that three people could not finish. The flavors are amazing as well. Chicken tibs were fresh and tender with the right amount of zest, stewed beef and lamb were to die for, lentils are hearty, stewed beets were striking in color and had a slight bitterness that really cut through the other flavors well, and ayib, a type of Ethiopian cheese that falls somewhere between ricotta and cotija, is an incredible counterpoint to the rich heat of the other items.
The Verdict: From the atmosphere to the food to the fact that it delivers, Authentic Ethio African is damn good.