Restaurant: Abyssinia Restaurant and Cafe
Location: 842 East Indian School Road
Open: About two months
There are a few Ethiopian restaurants scattered around the Valley, but not so many that the newly opened Abyssinia Restaurant and Cafe in Central Phoenix didn't immediately catch our attention. The small restaurant took over a space that was once home to Sacred Hogan, a fry bread restaurant, on the northwest corner of Indian School Road and Ninth Street.
The strip mall isn't anything sexy, but inside the restaurant's orange walls and clean blue and white tiles create a quaint atmosphere. The counter up front makes it seem as if the restaurant might offer counter service, but if you take a seat, one of the owners will promptly deliver menus. In addition to a handful of regular tables, a row of traditional Ethiopian tables line one wall, and a setup for an Ethiopian coffee ceremony sits in the dining room's back corner.
For drinks, the natural choice would probably be a cup of Ethiopian coffee ($2.50). Expect a small cup of strong black coffee delivered to your table with a container of sugar. We also recommend trying the kimeme tea ($2.50). The owner explained the tea is made with a mix of Ethiopia spices; we picked up a strong scent of cinnamon but were surprised by the tea's light, sweet, and herbal flavors.
The owners also will perform a coffee ceremony for customers for $9.99. The ceremony, though not particularly long, is definitely worth experiencing once. It involves roasting green coffee beans on a burner, grinding the roasted beans, and brewing the coffee in a traditional vessel, which the owners keep on display behind the counter. Just be sure to bring a friend or two, as the coffee is very strong and you'll get a whole pot.
We took a couple of recommendations from the owner when it came time to order food and ended up with a veggie combo ($11.99) and Abyssinia zil zil tips ($15.99). The vegetable platter arrived on a large platter with five types of veggies over a piece of injera bread. The spongy, sourdough-risen bread is a national dish of Ethiopia and serves as your eating utensil. Diners rip off pieces of the bread (you'll also get a side basket with your order) and use it to scoop up fingerfuls of food.
Our favorite of the veggies included a spiced chickpea puree that was in the middle of the platter and a mash of yellow split peas flavored with a mix of mild spices. Red lentils also were a hit but offered a sweeter profile, while a mixture of cabbage and carrots tasted almost like curry.
We'll definitely be back for the meat dish, which featured sizzling pieces of beef served over charcoal. As the pieces of meat fried in purified butter, we dunked the top pieces in awaze, a sweet and spicy hot sauce made with berbere powder. Throughout the meal, the meat and slices of onion continued to cook in the butter and soak up the flavor of fresh rosemary.
Unlike most Ethiopian restaurant's we've tried, Abyssinia also serves a breakfast menu that includes options such as scrambled eggs with tomato, onion, and jalapeño and tibbs furfur, described as "tender beef tips pan-grilled with onions" on the menu. From this section of the menu we tried the fuol ($9.99). The bowlful of beans came topped with a layer of olive oil surrounded fresh onion, jalapeños, and tomatoes but was curiously served with sliced wheat bread. We would have preferred a flatbread of even more injera but the fresh crunch of jalapeños and onions still make a nice way to start the day.
With friendly service and a comfortable dining room, we're looking forward to returning to Abyssinia Restaurant. We're still dreaming about those butter-soaked cubes of grilled meat, even if they did leave our clothes and hair smelling of beef and rosemary.