People aren't shy about recommending a favorite Ethiopian restaurant. Their opinion is usually worthless, however, because it's one of the two they've visited. It's true that the menu, prices and decor don't vary much, and most people seem happy enough with a decent meal and the novelty of dining à la doigts. Yet there are definite differences and a clear hierarchy. We decided to eat our way through about half of Portland's Ethiopian restaurants, looking for a meal worthy of a resurrected Haile Selassie, should Rastafarian theology prove sound.
Queen of Sheba International Foods
The basics: The grand old lady of Northeast Portland's Ethiopian epicenter, Queen of Sheba has been around since the mid-1990s—Jarra's on Southeast Hawthorne is older—and seems entrenched in a big dining room staffed by servers who exude a quiet resolve more common to small-town diners. Meat and veggies are cooked in atypically large pieces.
What's to like: Great tsebhi haamali (mustard greens, part of the $23 vegetarian sampler) and a laid-back vibe. Given the huge portions and atmosphere, this is the place you'd want to go after an afternoon of Bob Marley records.
What's to dislike: The menu isn't sampler-friendly, flavors are tepid and the injera lacks tartness.
910 N Killingsworth St., 286-1401, enjonicafe.com.
The basics: E'Njoni really pops with loud and bright decorations and food that falls decidedly on the spicy side. E'Njoni is eager to be an ambassador—they'll do the full coffee ceremony—which could make it good for first-timers.
What's to like: The timtimo (red lentils, part of the $12 five-veggie sampler) and siga tibs (beef cubes, $11) both had a pleasant earthiness with the heat.
What's to dislike: I like very spicy food, but beware that E'Njoni's "medium" beings more heat than most place's "hot." Food usually comes on a shared platter, so that's a land mine for many.
Bete-Lukas Ethiopian Restaurant
2504 SE 50th Ave., 477-8778, bete-lukas.com.
The basics: Just off Division Street on the second floor of a mixed-use building, Bete-Lukas is a little upscale. Open for dinner only, it gets busy enough to put parties of two at the bar. The servers are aggressive about suggestions.
What's to like: A polished and pretty place using high-quality meat and vegetables.
What's to dislike: The menu isn't designed for easy sampling, the salad dressing lacks bright lemon flavor, and the portions, while reasonable, are smaller than most.
4134 N Vancouver Ave., 808-9604.
The basics: Even more broken-in than Queen of Sheba, Dalo's is an unassuming, family-run place. It does have a regular menu, but the $10 all-day buffet seems to be the main draw, so we went with it.
What's to like: It's nice to be able to try whatever you want in the portions you want. The green-bean dish was a winner.
What's to dislike: As you might expect at a buffet, the chicken and beef had gotten pretty dry. The doughy injera was nearly pancake-thick.
300 N Killingsworth St., 285-4867.
The basics: Enat is a small, humble spot catering to the immigrant community. The requisite African decor is up front, with booths and a Blazers game providing the real atmosphere. It's the best Ethiopian I've had outside of Washington, D.C.
What's to like: Warm, rich flavors on big, juicy cuts of chicken and beef ($12.95 for the sampler). The salad was delightfully fresh, and the vegetarian sampler ($9.95) came with masir key wot (lentils) and gomen (collard greens) that kept just the right amount of crispness, even after stewing.
What's to dislike: The place needs a website.