After you decide to eat at Abyssinia in Anaheim, be sure to call ahead. Not to make a reservation, but to make sure the staff know you’re coming. Otherwise, the restaurant might just close early.
This was exactly what happened the first time we tried to go. We got there at about 7 on a Friday night, but the restaurant was dark. When I called Abyssinia the next day to find out if it was still in business, the woman who answered explained it closed early the night before because the staff didn’t see any customers.
“What time are you closing tonight?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “A lot of people are coming tonight, so we’ll be open until about 8:30.”
“Okay,” I said, “I want to make a reservation for four at 7 tonight.”
“Oh, I think someone already called for you,” she replied.
“Um,” I said, confused, “we’re calling for the first time.”
“Oh, okay. We’ll see you at 7.”
And that was it. She didn’t ask for my name or number. It was enough for her that we said we’d come. And it was enough for us to know that someone would be there when we did.
When we arrived, the restaurant was at near capacity. At the center of every table were round platters that could double as semi-truck hubcaps. People were digging into the shared piles of food with their fingers. They tore swatches of injera bread, using it to pick up stews and curries with one hand, while sweaty brown bottles of St. George beer rested in the other. This was communal dining at its most communal.
We were shown to a table next to a wall half-covered in thatch. Near the window, under the buzzing-neon “Open” sign, was a low-slung display of a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony setup that I vaguely remembered when the place was Merhaba.
As half of my friends were new to Ethiopian food, I did the ordering. And it was easy. Though the menu can be impenetrable—with about 25 different items that all sound similar—I zeroed in on the Traditional Combo, which is the platter everyone orders. It’s essentially an Ethiopian-cuisine greatest-hits sampler, served in portions that serve two, three or five. Dead center was a bowl of yedoro wot—a single chicken drumstick and one hard-boiled egg simmered in a thick, brick-red stew made by boiling down sweet red peppers to silk. Orbiting it were the other dishes in small hills. There was awaze tibs, strips of beefsteak sautéed in butter with onions, green peppers, tomato and berbere—the Ethiopian spice blend equivalent to garam masala. There were two kinds of lentils, one sweet and one savory; a chopped iceberg salad with tomatoes and diced jalapeños dressed in Italian dressing; and, best of all, a homey stir-fried cabbage-and-carrot dish we could’ve eaten by the bucketful.
I also ordered kitfo, the Ethiopian version of steak tartare. It was served in the same plastic molcajete Mexican chains use for salsa, along with a small bowl of crumbly ayib (Ethiopian cottage cheese). But because the staff pegged us as newbies, the meat was slightly cooked and warmed to drive out the redness. If you’ve never experienced kitfo, having it half-cooked is a good primer, even if it ends up tasting like a tangier, spicier version of taco meat with whiffs of cardamom. But if you’re ready for the real deal, be sure to ask for it as it’s meant to be had: raw and bloody.
Everything, of course, was eaten with injera, the native flatbread made from an indigenous grain called teff. Injera has the tanginess of San Francisco sourdough, the lightness of a French crepe and the acreage of an Indian dosa. But the most important property is that it has the absorptive powers of a sponge. You use it to dip, sop and grab. It’s an edible utensil as well as a napkin. When I ordered what turned out to be Abyssinia’s best dish—a spicy fish stew with onions and peppers—I used a torn piece of injera to wipe away the red oil that slicked my lips.
At Abyssinia—as Merhaba before it and Tana across town—the injera is the base on which every platter is built, but it’s also rolled up in bundles that’s infinitely refillable and ultimately the thing that fills you up. They even serve it as breakfast as chechebsa, a dish that has pieces of injera cooked with niter kibbeh (Ethiopian ghee) and berbere in what I imagine is the Ethiopian version of chilaquiles—something I’ve not tried since I’ve yet to see the restaurant open in the morning. I suppose I’ll need to call ahead to let the staff know I’m coming the night before.
Abyssinia, 2801 W. Ball Rd., Ste. 5, Anaheim, (714) 826-8859. Call for hours. Dinner for two, $30, food only. Beer and wine.