923L NE Broadway, 281-7961
Lost among three other worthy Ethiopian restaurants in the Lloyd District, four-month-old Abol Café faces an uphill battle for recognition--it's easy to walk by without even noticing it. Lucky for me, I spotted the cuneiform signage from the no-fee ATMs at the Teachers Credit Union, and we descended the half-staircase into the baby blue portal to East Africa. The gracious proprietress asked if I had come for Ethiopian food; I nodded my head, and she told us to come back in an hour.
After a drink at the elegant Joq's bar, we returned to the tiny café (it sits about six) hungering for Injera, the spongy Ethiopian flatbread, and spicy finger food. The owner/waitress/chef was now happy to feed both us and the two friendly Ethiopian dudes at the other table. The pungent aromas of seared lamb and of berbere, the fiery foundation of Ethiopian cuisine, soon wafted over from the nearby stove.
The food here is subtle, with a building heat that is satisfying and exotic. There's no menu, so ask for suggestions. I was served bite-sized pieces of lamb in rich, dark red gravy that grew on me with each bite. I initially found it too tough, but this is people's food, not haute cuisine. Its virtues more than overcame its deficiencies. The vegetarian selection was pureed legumes, silky and rich with garlic; the flavor like nothing else I'd previously encountered. We lopped it all up on the never-ending supply of Ingera while watching CNN on the 19-inch protruding from the cinderblock walls.
Atmosphere is lacking in the "traditional" sense, but when Mrs. Abol lit frankincense, roasted coffee beans in a little pan (the smoke and the odor of fresh coffee intersecting with the incense and lingering lamb aura), and popped popcorn in the traditional African manner, Abol Café was suddenly the most intimate, atmospheric restaurant in the Northwest.
If you're an adventurous eater, call ahead to be sure they're ready for you, and prepare to be mentally airlifted from the Lloyd Center to the African Continent.