It’s common knowledge that anything marked with a neon highlighter deserves attention, and this is true for the low-slung building just off Magazine Street (a literal gravel throw behind Imperial Woodpecker Snoballs) that houses Café Abyssinia. Bright orange-red vinyl siding marks the spot.
It’s a modest establishment, for sure. The entire restaurant appears to be operated by no more than two people—a cook and a server—at any given time. The TVs pump out Ethiopian pop music videos featuring vast, arid landscapes and violent shoulder thrusting.
The menu appears large at first, but is easy to navigate as it features beef, lamb and chicken in a repeating lineup of sauces—alicha made with turmeric; tibs with jalapeños, onions and tomatoes (too dry to be called sauce, really—this is more like a stir fry) and wot prepared with a reddish berbere spice mix, dominated by cardamom, fenugreek, cumin and ginger (the chicken version, doro wot, is Ethiopia’s national dish and my personal favorite topped with a hard-boiled egg). Another repeat ingredient is gomen, listed as “spinach” but so far never encountered as anything but collard greens.
The vegetable dishes double as sides for the meat presentations. Cabbage/carrots and potatoes/carrots come out exactly as the names imply—modest dirt dwellers without much ambition in the world. A much better companion for your meal is the red lentil stew (basic yet excellent, with the same berbere spice mix as the wot) as well as the chewy collard greens.
Literally tying your meal together is the injera, the spongy and stretchy Ethiopian crepe that serves as plate, starch and utensil. It’s impeccable. For all my travels to Washington D.C., the supposed Ethiopian food capital in America, I’ve never found better injera than at Café Abyssinia. Considering its position on the table—under, over and around the food—the quality of the injera really matters.
I tried to make my own injera once. (Just once.) You make a batter with water and teff flour (not unlike buckwheat) and let it sit in room temperature for about a day. At least that’s what the recipes say. But in the humidity and heat in the summer here, it’s hard to time the fermentation process right. What I ended up making could have been used as a threat. (“It puts the lotion in the basket, or else it gets the teff!”) I’d much rather enjoy the real deal in restaurants than attempt to do that again.
Also, there’s no need to be silent about the lamb at Café Abyssinia. It’s great. Next time I go, I’m going to try the lamb wot instead of chicken—one of the last meat-and-sauce combinations I have yet to try. As per usual, I’m going to bring a nice bottle of wine from Spirit Wine across the street when I go. It’s still BYOB.