415 NE San Rafael
4134 N Vancouver
On the rare occasion that I discover a jewel like the San Rafael Cafe, I'm torn. On the one hand, I don't want anyone to know about it, so I can visit as often as I like without fear of having to wait. On the other hand, I want the restaurant to bring in enough customers to stay in business, which means I have to tell people about it.
As you approach the San Rafael Cafe, you are besieged with the most enticing aroma of Ethiopian spices you will encounter outside of Addis Abbaba. You know those cartoons where the mouse smells cheese and his feet lift off the floor and he starts floating toward the block of Swiss? That's pretty much what will happen to you when you walk up. Inside, you will find the best new Ethiopian restaurant in Portland. The menu is simple, the food is delicious, and the prices are incredible.
The meat dishes all run $5 for the small, and about $9 for the large plate. You have a choice of chicken or beef prepared either in a curry sauce with onions and peppers or in a spicy berbere sauce. The berbere has a tiny hint of smokiness that I thought would put me off (one of the few tastes that disagrees with my palate is chipotle, or almost any kind of smoked or roasted chili), but it is subtle enough that it adds depth to the flavor without detracting from it.
The first time I visited the cafe, the meat dishes were also accompanied by a tomato-cucumber salad served on the traditional injera bread, as well as portions of an absolutely sublime spinach and onion dish. The spinach is fresh and steamed soft without being overcooked, retaining a bright green color. The onions trade flavors with the spinach, and everything is rich and succulent as though it has been flirting with butter for hours.
Perhaps my only complaint with the San Rafael Cafe is that it seems each time I've visited, the meat dishes have been presented with slight differences. Sometimes they arrive with the spinach dish, sometimes not. Likewise, the cucumber and tomato salad has only made sporadic appearances. When I asked about the missing spinach dish, the amiable server apologized, brought out a portion, and apologized again for forgetting to include it in the first place.
If you want to be sure to get a variety of dishes, try the vegetarian combination. The combo comes with lentils prepared with a mild curry, lentils in a medium-spicy berbere sauce, a hearty mixture of potatoes carrots and cabbage, and the famous spinach and onion dish. Eaten with the injera, the large platter can easily satiate a group of three moderately hungry people.
The owners of the San Rafael are moving permanently to a new location on the corner of Vancouver and Skidmore, called Dalo's Kitchen, and hope to be operating there by the time this review comes out (they'll still be serving food at the San Rafael Cafe until mid-May). This fills me with relief, because with two locations--at least for the next month or so--I won't have to battle you for a table.