Hands down, this is one of Falls Church’s finest, and owner Yonas Alemayehu’s not afraid to share Abay Market’s recent, and deserved, exploits: the restaurant was named Best Bargain Restaurant 2008 according to Northern Virginia magazine, and Best Ethiopian Restaurant in City Paper. Most recently, the restaurant was highlighted in Maxim.
Oh, and the Travel Channel’s Anthony Bourdaine, host of “No Reservations,” put Abay Market in the limelight on his show. Whoa! That’s a hefty catalogue of praise for a restaurant that’s about three years old. (The market’s existed for eight.)
Welcome to a little slice of Ethiopia, tucked in a tiny, neat space of the Build-America in Skyline Center.
Just finding a parking spot is a terrific enterprise; parking vultures circle the plaza like a derby race caught in 14 Street bridge construction.
There’s no frill to Alemayehu’s dining space, with four unadorned tables occupying most of the space, sandwiched between the kitchen, a beverage fridge, bathrooms and a bar at the entrance. The simple environment recalls the staple fish-and-chip dives of my youth: an unspoken guarantor of authentic cuisine.
Abay Market’s menu shares the space’s spartan sensibility, with an array four or five dishes.
When Alemayehu informed me the vegetarian dish was no longer served, he matter-of-factly explained, “Fasting is over, now we can eat meat again.” Ah, I thought, Lent’s over, Easter’s passed; let the meat-eating begin. (Insistent vegetarians can find satisfaction: call a day or so ahead to make a reservation, and to request one of the restaurant’s vegetarian fares. Alemayehu is glad to accommodate.)
Glancing at my neighbors’ tables, some Ethiopian regulars, I noticed Abay Market’s signature attraction, tera sege, that is, lean, raw beef, garnished with some homemade cheese and held by a pouch of injera, the fluffy Ethiopian flatbread which resembles a cheesecloth.
Alemayehu sensed some Western apprehension in my menu inquiry, and recommended the lamb stew, a favorite of his non-Ethiopian clientele.
Alemayehu is as dedicated to his clientele as he is to fresh supplies – the finest beef, lamb, vegetables, bread and cheese; homemade and delicious.
When the meal arrived – a deep bowl of lamb in a curried stew, a plate of injera and a side of cheese – he guided me and my dining partner through the preparation of the dish.
First, one takes the spongy injera and lays it across the plate. Spoon some of curried lamb in the center of bread, and top the meat with a spoonful of cheese. Using the bread as a utensil, take some of the cheese and meat. Presto!
The flavors blend into a sumptuous culinary menagerie – the spicy, tender lamb marinated in traditional spices, a tangy, thick cheese and the soft, slightly sour bite of the injera.
For its prices, Abay Market’s fare is also extremely enticing: dinner for two runs between $11 – 14 altogether, making Abay Market an affordable and delectable choice.