Nobody argues about Ethiopian food.
At least not in Portland, home to about 10 East African restaurants and a population that never tires of debating burgers, pizza or burritos. You can ruin a date with your opinion of La Sirenita, or lose a friend over Little Big Burger, but you'll never hear a hot take on tibs.
Why? Maybe it's because most of the city's Ethiopian spots are pretty good, though not transcendent, or because most folks tend to gravitate toward the spot they've always gone.
Well, the newish Abyssinian Kitchen is a place that might spark a debate. Taking over the old house off Southeast Clinton Street that formerly contained the much-missed Sok Sab Bai, this homey, earth-toned space serves Ethiopian and Eritrean dishes like tilapia stew, sauteed lamb and slow-cooked lentils. They are all plated on a very tangy version of injera, the spongy brown sourdough pancake that doubles as silverware.
Abyssinan Kitchen is a very good restaurant—it immediately joins Enat Kitchen and Bete-Lukas on the city's top tier of Ethiopian eateries. And like Lukas, it is relatively upscale compared to its competitors. Meats here are "ethically raised," produce is local, and the spices are blended in-house. You can taste the difference, but will also notice it on the check. The Oregonian reviewed Abyssinian in its cheap eats column, but considering a meal will set you back $25 to $30 a person, that seems a function of an editor's notions about what African food should cost more than what this particular food actually does cost. Is the upgrade worth the expense? After four visits, I'm still not really sure.
Several local Ethiopian spots make tilapia dishes—all of the country's fisheries are freshwater—but Abyssinian stands out by offering two, one-quarter of its protein options. We really enjoyed the asa dulet ($11), a light, bright preparation of crumbled flesh seasoned with serrano peppers and onions. If you dislike fishy flavor, it's probably not for you. And if you're looking for a big pile of food, it's definitely not for you, since the $11 portion would have trouble stretching to fill three street tacos.
The same goes for the dish called siga and gomen ($12), which I haven't encountered elsewhere in Portland. Gristly beef short ribs are cut into slivers the width of a wooden nickel and fried on the bone with collard greens in herbed butter. You have to fight for every scrap of meat, but the warming herb and fat flavors are incredible, especially on the greens. You'd need at least one other meat and a veggie combination to make a two-person meal with this dish, but if you're treating yourself, it's an absolute must.
For heartier appetites, I highly recommend the awaze tibs ($14), which includes large cubes of tender, pot-roasty beef in a spicy deep red sauce built from berbere, that magical Ethiopian spice blend that is as integral to many of the nation's dishes as salt and pepper are to Western Europe.
If you've eaten Ethiopian food before, chances are you're familiar with the three dishes on the beyaynetu combination platter ($15).
There are red and yellow lentils cooked into pleasant mushiness. The red lentils, especially, have a pleasant heat and a nice sprinkle of cinnamony flair. The gomen are firm, lightly cooked collard greens that are far less stewy here than elsewhere.
Depending on what else you order, the kitchen may throw in some of the ayb ($3), a fresh and fluffy soft white cheese you often see used more as a garnish than a dish—Abyssinian does just that with its own roasted beet salad ($7). But, here, the side includes a very healthy portion. Then again, maybe it's because so many of the other dishes here are a little smaller, and a little bit more expensive, than we've been trained to expect at the spots clustered in Northeast. Should you go here instead? Argue among yourselves.
EAT: Abyssinian Kitchen, 2625 SE 21st Ave., 894-8349, abyssiniankitchen.com. 4-10 pm Tuesday-Friday, 11 am-10 pm Saturday-Sunday.