When Queen of Sheba opened last year, I thought Tampa had hit the jackpot. After a long drought, we finally had an Ethiopian restaurant to call our own. And it was good, too. Good enough for me to name it Best New Restaurant for 2008. Then, just about a month ago, I heard about Abol Bunna. A second Ethiopian joint opening just a few short blocks away from Sheba? Bliss.
Abol Bunna is the handiwork of husband-and-wife team Teddy Habtemariam and Azeb Bezabeh. Both have extensive careers in hospitality management in Ethiopia and the States. Habtemariam ran several restaurants and is an accomplished cook. After working for hotel chains since they came to the U.S. seven years ago, Bezebeh convinced Habtemariam that it was time to get back into the restaurant business.
"She likes my cooking and my profession," explains Habtemariam. "We wanted to serve Tampa's Ethiopian food lovers."
He estimates that there are around a thousand Ethiopian ex-pats in the area. Considering how many of his countrymen I've seen in Abol Bunn, it seems like the word is out. Not that there's any shortage of Westerners, either.
Both of those groups are coming for the traditional meat and vegetable stews that make Ethiopian such a comforting and attractive cuisine. Dishes can be dressed up, sure, but at its heart, this food tastes and acts like you're eating at home. Someone else's home, most likely.
Traditionally, almost everything is served on big platters covered in injera — the bubbly, soft flatbread that acts as plate, utensil and side dish all in one. They'll give you a fork if you ask, but the proper way is to rip a piece of injera and reach across the table to scoop up some food, family-style.
Starters are mostly salads of chopped veggies ($3.99) dressed in surprisingly accomplished vinaigrette — the vinegar bite meshes well with the hint of sourdough in the injera. There is also injera stuffed with oily chile paste ($3.99) that packs a subtle burn, and cold lentils ($3.99) laced with more vinegar.
Usually, your best choices when it comes to entrees at Ethiopian restaurants are the platters that combine small portions of multiple dishes. At Abol Bunna, the veggie platter ($9.99) comes with rich spiced cabbage, a dollop of tomato and onion salad, peas stewed with garlic and jalapeno, beans and potatoes stewed in tomato sauce and more lentils. Garlic and spice — usually in the form of either fresh jalapenos or berbere sauce loaded with dried herbs — prevails across the dishes, along with Habtemariam's generous hand with vinegar.
The meat platter ($15.99) features the classics, with dooro wet front-and-center on the platter. This simple dish — a stewed chicken leg coated in a decadent, buttery sauce of cardamom, ginger, garlic and berbere — is easily my favorite dish at Ethiopian restaurants, and Abol Bunna's dark, deeply flavored version is better than many.
Lamb and beef are also common meats, but at Abol Bunna you should be ready for tougher cuts riddled with connective tissue. That works on slow-cooked dishes like siga wet ($9.99), where that tissue is rendered into luscious gelatin, but most of the dishes are sautés that make the little cubes of meat tighten up.
If you are a true carnivore, there's nothing better than Ethiopian kitfo ($12.99). Essentially African tartare, kitfo is ground beef tossed with clarified butter and a spice blend of chile, cardamom, cumin, cloves and ginger. Traditionally, it's served warm, but raw, which leaves the excellent beef pillowy soft and rich. Abol Bunna will cook it for you, if you'd like, but you might as well ask for a bun and some ketchup while you're at it.
There is also a lunch buffet that's fairly standard fare, a bit dumbed-down compared to the offerings at dinner. That's also where Habtemariam's attempt to provide some non-African options is made clear by a steam tray full of spaghetti in chunky tomato sauce. You'll also find beef and rice, or sautéed chicken with peppers and onions on the menu. It's a nice gesture, but none of it will bring people back.
The real question all you Ethiopianatics are asking yourselves is: How's it stack up to Queen of Sheba? Abol Bunna's cuisine is both more restrained and a bit sharper than its neighbor. Habtemariam uses fewer aromatic spices, but also likes to inject more surprising blasts of chile heat and tart vinegar. Difference in style more than quality, maybe, but I unequivocally prefer the beef, lamb and injera at Sheba.
And in these early days, it's clear that Abol Bunna has a ways to go to meet the relentlessly friendly and accommodating folks over at the competition. Sheba's owner Seble Gizaw always acts more like she's hosting you in her home than merely serving you food in her restaurant. That's going to be difficult to match.
That's not to say you shouldn't head over for dinner at Abol Bunna. Thankfully, the food is different enough to provide some contrast, the service is just fine, and it's worth your money. Show these new places some support and, at this rate, we'll have a couple more Ethiopian restaurants opening within six months.
Hopefully, outside of South Tampa.