West Philly is definitely on the quirky side. It's a little bit hipster and a little bit ghetto. Restaurants in the area tend to maintain this vibe, including Abyssinia, a great little Ethiopian restaurant at 45th and Locust. A & I were in the area for non-food related reasons (and no, we weren't buying drugs or guns) and decided to check it out, mostly due to the fact that it was convenient and that we had never eaten Ethiopian food. A noted that although most of the Yelp reviews made positive comments about the food, the lack of/slow service was a downside. Arriving at around 6:15 helped us beat the rush, and the sole hostess/waitress/busser/possibly chef led us to a table. We snagged a couple of hand sanitizer wipes from the basket at the front, since we knew our hands needed to be nice and clean for this eating event. Ethiopian restaurants traditionally do not provide utensils. A & I eat many things with our hands, including pancakes and, oddly, salad, so we were totally prepared.
The atmosphere was... eclectic... and odd... but still managed a hint of charm. There were several younger families which made me happy- kids should be exposed to all kinds of food, not just french fries and tater tots (you can't survive on potatoes and grease, people). The back wall was covered with a giant picture of a very beautiful, soothing waterfall scene. There is also an odd raised stage type area with woven tables and chairs and sombrero looking covers on the tables. We couldn't decide what this was for- no one was sitting in this area.
The menu is a little bit on the limited side- as far as I can tell, all of the dishes fall in the "stew" category- primarily composed of meats, beans, and lentils. All of the dishes are served with injera, which is a thin sourdough crepe type bread that essentially tastes like slightly sour air. This is a good thing though, because it is what you use instead of a fork! A & I wanted to try out as much of the menu as possible, and Abyssinia makes this easy by providing a number of "combination" dishes. I chose the vegetarian combo (a bit of 6 different veggie dishes for $8.95) and A ordered the "Abyssinia Special #2" which combined a beef dish, a lamb dish and 3 veggie sides ($10.95). Our waitress asked if we could share a plate, confirming our meatatarian status with a quick "You eat meat?" (looks at A) "You eat meat?" (looks at me).
The plate sharing thing seemed a little weird, but we got to see a couple examples before we were served. Fortunately, the wait wasn't as long as we had feared, and service generally seemed totally normal. Our food was brought out on an enormous platter (think Thanksgiving turkey plate) which was lined with several layers of injera. Additionally, a couple huge pieces of injera were folded up and served on another enormous platter. I'm not sure you guys are aware of how big these things were. Also, each of the different items were literally just plopped onto the plate in little piles.
Because A & I's combination platters had several shared components, we had a little bit of overlap on the plate which made it a bit easier to each try everything. The beef "dish" was my personal favorite- spicy ground beef that they claim is "medium-rare" but I just found to be delicious. I think it was a combination of the fact that we never eat ground beef and the perfect level of spiciness that made it so good. When we first began eating from the platter, the extra pieces of injera provided us with our "utensils" but as we ate the little piles of food, the injera left underneath with all the spices and meat juice was able to be eaten. The great thing about the injera is that it really didn't taste like anything- you could completely enjoy the food without it being overwhelmed by another flavor.
The other meat was a lamb stew- small chunks of lamb in a rich sauce- not as much spice here but certainly a good level of flavor. A doesn't like lamb too much so I gladly took charge of the pile. I did have an interesting encounter with what I can only guess was a piece of bone. It was firm but still chewable, and once I bit down and broke it into several pieces, I felt committed to finishing the job and ended up just swallowing it. Not exactly unpleasant but definitely weird.
There were also several legume stews- a garlicky lentil, split peas, and brown lentils in a mustard-tinted sauce. All relatively good, and the small size of the piles prevented them from getting redundant. On my side of the platter there was also a heartier stew with potatoes, green beans and carrots, cooked to the perfect amount of softness without reaching the mushy stage, with an interesting ginger turmeric based flavor. The Ethiopian flavors are definitely along the lines of Indian food although there was never any overpowering curry action. We also noted that, unlike Indian food, there was no greasiness whatsoever. This was very much appreciated, especially by our little fingers (no need for extra napkins here!)
The plate was rounded out with a mini salad and some collard greens. A liked the collard greens, but I thought the lack of meat or grease in their preparation made them a little bland. The salad was pretty American.
For those of you who have never eaten Ethiopian and might be a little nervous in trying it out, we thought we'd put together a little tutorial on how to go about consuming the food.
Step 1: Tear off piece of injera to a palm-sized portion.
Step 2: Plop injera over desired pile of food.
Step 3: Pick up injera using the fingertips, grabbing a mouthful amount of meat or stew within the injera "pocket".
Step 4: Open mouth. Insert injera-wrapped food blob. Enjoy.
We were in no way stuffed at the end of this feast-like meal. We certainly didn't use anywhere near all of the injera, but there was no need. It was the perfect way to transport food into our faces, but it really provided nothing on its own. We happily paid our rather small bill and made the longish trek home (there may or may not have been frozen yogurt purchased and consumed along the way).
229 S. 45th Street