If you're looking for Ethiopian food in New Orleans, it's helpful to look for Magazine Cuisine Snoballs first. This place is just your typical shedlike sno-ball stand, but it is easier to spot along Magazine Street than Cafe Abyssinia, the obscure, utterly homespun, BYOB restaurant that sits well behind it. This unlikely address is home to spicy vegetarian stews, rare and raw beef dishes and, bearing it all, the sour, acidic tang of injera bread.
Since Cafe Abyssinia opened in November, local Ethiopians and adventurous eaters have avidly sought it out, and that's no wonder. Ethiopian flavors can penetrate the memory banks, and there's been no other restaurant option for them in New Orleans for years.
Much of Cafe Abyssinia's menu falls between the heavily-sauced, stir-fry style dishes called tibs and the thick stews called wats. All share heady, aromatic seasoning levels that can variously include chile peppers, cumin, cardamom, garlic and ginger. Yesmir wot, or red lentils, and yebeg tibs, or lamb strips with rosemary, are good entry points. My own go-to Ethiopian dish is kifto, a finely minced hash of raw beef, which at Cafe Abyssinia is especially good mixed with finely-chopped collard greens and at its best with sprinkles of lab, a crumbly, fetalike cheese. Those unfazed by raw beef can push on to the larger cubes of gored gored, a dish which brings a gamy bite to the lush spice profile already at work in these dishes.
Injera bread — flat, spongy, honeycombed with bubble pits, naturally gluten-free and offering the pliable consistency of a thick crepe — is the essential delivery system for all of this. The bread lines the serving platter like an edible plate and, when torn up into smaller wads, it serves as utensils. But injera is more than that. Its distinctive sour flavor is an indispensible part of the meal, as important to the overall experience as pita on the Middle Eastern table. It's served in baskets beside the platters, and diners use it to grab from the heaps of tibs and wots. Then they pick at the revealed oil- and sauce-soaked injera left on the platter.
It's a communal approach to dining, with lots of reaching, grabbing and sharing. It doesn't make for elegant eating, but it is exciting. This might be a better place for a third date than a first date, unless you're really into testing boundaries early on.
The dining room is small but still seems understaffed and under-managed. On busy nights, half the dining room might be staring down the solitary waiter, hoping for attention. The kitchen routinely runs out of certain dishes, the phone rings and rings and people eating stews with their hands are too often left to fetch their own napkins. Things flow more smoothly at lunch, a better time to try out Cafe Abyssinia.
The combination of all that spice and injera produces a special satisfaction. Diners leave with a clean kind of full, like the feeling of eating more than enough sushi rather than too much fried food and melted cheese.