3511 Magazine St.
New Orleans, LA 70115
Napoleon's Rating - **/*****
Mention Ethiopian food in this town and you'll likely get one of two reactions: puzzlement from those who haven't tried this cuisine or hungry anticipation from those who have. There just aren't many opportunities to try this cuisine in our part of the country, and before Café Abyssinia opened in 2010 the city hadn't counted a single Ethiopian restaurant for years. But those who have experience with this style of cooking know it can be delicious, and fun. The essential menu consists of a variety of heavily-spiced stews ladled onto injera bread, a stretchy, crepe-like starch that serves simultaneously as your plate and your utensil (more on this below). Café Abyssinia has some rough spots, but it is a place to sample this singular cooking or sate the craving you may have developed elsewhere.
Aside from the folks who already know Ethiopian food by heart, this café will probably attract only those local diners who have a keen sense of adventure. This is just as well, considering the setting. You can drive past the place a few times without spotting it, and even when you approach the front door for the first time it can seem a little hard to believe that you'll find a restaurant on the other side of it. This café is housed in what looks like an old apartment addition to a Magazine Street shotgun house, and you get to it by walking down the side yard and over a gravel parking lot. Inside, it's just a low room with African murals and minimal furnishing. A large TV in the corner is usually on and unusually at too loud a volume.
Café Abyssinia has the feel of a come-as-you-are, family-run restaurant, but even with that in mind service is still a weak point. The place is chronically under-staffed, and there's not much of a greeting once you find your way to the door and venture inside. Servers explain the menu reasonably well, but too often we found ourselves having to fetch our own napkins and wishing we'd brought a canteen of water. The service usually seems well-meaning, just overwhelmed and inexperienced.
First courses aren't a big deal here, and you don't miss much by skipping them. The entrees are filling enough on their own. If you want some preliminary nibble, get an order of the sambusas, which are fried pastry turnovers filled with beef or vegetables.
The menu splits into two basic types of dishes: tibs, which are like stir-fries, and wats, which are stews. All of it is served on broad, round platters completely lined with injera, the slightly sour, thin, bubbly bread. The meats and vegetables soak into the injera, which you tear into pieces to eat. The platters also come with baskets of more injera that you rip up and use as single-use utensils, dredging a piece through the entrée and popping the whole thing into your mouth.
One of the braver dishes here is kitfo, or finely minced beef served raw (think brawnier steak tartare). You can also get it slightly cooked. Those who get squeamish over raw meat can take comfort that most of the other dishes are deeply stewed, and made with a choice of lamb, chicken or beef. Many of these dishes come smothered in a spicy red pepper sauce while others are cooked with a mix of onions, garlic and jalapenos. There are many vegetarian selections including red lentils, split peas, cabbage with carrots and potatoes. As with the meat dishes, these are all very highly seasoned, sometimes spicy and always aromatic. Onion, garlic and ginger are the prime seasoning elements and they're used in abundance.
Once you get your head around this style of cooking, it doesn't seem so foreign after all and you can drill down to favorite dishes. Consistency is a bit of an issue at Café Abyssinia though. The same dish that seemed well-composed and balanced one visit might be runny and off-putting the next. Avoid the doro wot, or chicken leg in red sauce, which is billed as an entrée but was far too meager to satisfy.
This café serves soft drinks only, including some interesting Ethiopian tea (iced, or hot by the kettle) flavored with still more clove, cardamom and nutmeg. It's BYOB for anything stronger.
Café Abyssinia is inexpensive and feels like a good bargain, especially for a group splitting things around the table. Most entrees are $11 or $13. Without much of a beverage bill, a party of four can get a good taste of the menu here for about $20 per person.
If you want to experience Ethiopian food in New Orleans, this is the only game in town right now. The cuisine is interesting, and for those you get into it the format is fun too. Café Abyssinia has too many problems with service and consistency to merit a more hearty recommendation, but for diners who are equal parts adventurous and patient it can certainly deliver a satisfying, unusual meal.