Review: Queen of Sheba

Refreshed 12.09
The Queen of Sheba on Martin Luther King Blvd is home to what many consider the best Ethiopian food in Portland. The restaurant is located on the block between Echo and Russell St. BBQ in N.E. I have passed it many times on my daily runs, and the odor of spices in the air always urge me inside. Recently I made several visits.

An old converted store, this is a musty old building, with a hole in the wall feel. There is a front room with a few tables, the coolers and a cash register, a second room behind has about six smaller tables, and another darker room and full bar (which I’ve never seen in use), is around the corner. When you sit down, pay attention to which table you pick. Most of the place is lit by mostly burned out fluorescent bulbs that can leave some tables dark and menus hard to read. A few flags and painted figures on the walls attempt to brighten things up.

According to Ethiopian folklore and the Old Testament, Makeda, the Queen of Sheba, made the arduous journey from Tigre in Northern Ethiopia, across the desert and the Red Sea to visit King Solomon. When she returned, she gave birth to their son, Menelik, who Ethiopian leaders up to the time of Haile Selassie claimed as an ancestor. Now it seems every major city has a restaurant named after the queen.

Everything that is not fresh is imported from Ethiopia. Owner Alem Gebrehiwot makes yearly trips to his native land, returning with grains, spices, beer and other necessary ingredients.

Start off with an unusual ginger juice or Ethiopian iced tea. These subtle but spicy refreshers are made in-house. There is also an ouzo-tea, which has a nice kick and helps cool the spices to come. Choose from a list of interesting cocktails: the Greenfire Kiss mixes brandy or tequila with Serrano, ginger, olive juice and a dash of vermouth for an unusual combination of flavors.

Many different Ethiopian dishes are available. Pronouncing the names was next to impossible for us. Fortunately everything is numbered making it a whole lot easier to order. Just try saying “Tsebhi Kintti-Shara” or “Alicha Tibssi Kintti-Shara” and you’ll see what I mean. The menu is about 50% vegetarian with the rest made up of Beef, Lamb and Chicken dishes.

Once you have worked your way through the ordering process, the food comes on one large communal platter that takes most of the table space. The tray is lined with injera with the food piled in sections on top. Injera is a spongy traditional flatbread made with fermented tef — a tiny grain native to Ethiopia, and doubles as cutlery – no forks here! You tear off a bit and use it to pick up a dollop of food with your right hand. This flatbread takes a bit of getting used to. In texture it reminds me of old foam-packing material used many years ago. The first time I tried injera, I found it really strange. It’s not that I didn’t like it… just that it was a new food experience. It doesn’t have a lot of flavor except for being slightly sour, rather it is a vehicle to get the food from plate to mouth. As the meal progressed the Injera soaked up flavors from the food resting on top of it greatly improving the experience.

If this is your first visit, I recommend the House Vegetarian Sampler for Two ($20.00). This includes the house salad with fresh lemon or spicy Serrano dressing and sample portions of ten vegetarian options including split pea stew with warm spices, lentil and okra stew, chickpea paste, fresh Oregon mushroom stew, mustard greens steamed and seasoned with flax seeds, etc. For the price you get a good exposure to many different dishes. Not every dish is a hit, but with so many to choose from it is easy to move on to one that meets your fancy.

Meat options abound, dominated by two different spice mixtures common in Ethiopian food. Beef, Lamb, and Chicken are available in combination with Alicha, a complex sauce made from chopped ginger, garlic, onion, fenugreek, cumin, basil, cardamom, oregano and turmeric giving an amazingly fragrant aura to the dishes. The second is Berbere a piquant combination of wine, cumin, clove, cardamom, turmeric, allspice, fenigreek, ginger, chili and garlic. Most of the dishes make use of one of these two spice mixtures.

Kinti-Shara, Giga Tibssi – Sizzling mushroom and beef sautéed in a hot berber sauce ($11.95). Alicha Tibs – beef sautéed in mild aromatic Alicha spices ($10.50),
Alicha sizzling mushroom and chicken mildly spiced with complex flavors including split peas, mushroom stew, lentils and okra ($10.95). Another unusual choice is Yedero Wet – lemon-washed chicken leg in berbere sauce topped with a hard-boiled egg, or any of their many lamb dishes ($10.50). This is not your grandmother’s cooking!

Overall the food is aromatic and complex spices and tastes explode in the mouth. Other restaurants tend to be a little shy on flavor and quality ingredients, substituting with over-the-top hotness. Dishes here are spicy but achieve an excellent of balance, never masking the subtle flavors or leaving your mouth scorched.

This is not by any means a perfect restaurant. The mustiness of the old building is a bit off-putting. The injera bread takes some getting used to. I know it is part of the culture and the whole experience but I kept wishing I could skip it and just use a fork. On one occasion a dining companion commented that this would be “fantastic food to take home and put over rice”. Hardly Ethiopian but I understood his sentiment. Queen of Sheba is a place I go to more for the novelty of the experience and the amazing spice blends rather than a frequent stop on my radar. The prices are hard to beat and the whole experience is fun.

Debt cards or cash only.

 

  • Phone: (503) 287-6302.
  • Address: 2413 NE Martin Luther King Blvd. Portland OR. 97208 Google Map.
  • Hours: Mon-Sun 5pm-10pm, Thu-Sat 12pm-3pm
  • Website: QueenOfSheba.biz

Queen of Sheba on Urbanspoon

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. Crystal says

    This is a place that my friend and I have been wanting to try out, yet haven’t made it to yet. From your review I can tell it would be similar to several of the other Ethiopian places we have tried, yet much closer to our homes, so I’m thinking the next time the craving for some spice hits us, to Queen we will go!

    I also would like to compliment you on your description of injera, it is deffinitely an aquired taste, and not something to be eating alone. Most people don’t enjoy it or even realize that it’s more a utensil than a food item.

    Again a great review! Thanks

  2. pollo elastico says

    i hear you on the injera – back in my old home town of tucson, arizona, there was a fantastic ethiopian place we would frequent. at first, i was similarily put off by the texture of injera – i likened it to the anti-skid foam my wife puts below our rugs to keep them from sliding on our hardwood floors. i too wanted to take the dishes home and eat them over a fragrant basmati rice (nice to see somebody else had the same instinct), but this restaurant in question allowed us to bring in our own beer and we always went with a large group, so the “breaking bread” (literally) communal aspect was part of the charm.

    injera has grown a bit on me though, and i’ll give QofS a try – we tried a place (blue nile?) on broadway when we first moved to portland and it was pretty good – in fact, the injera was very good.

  3. shaja says

    Great Review!!

    I loved Queen of Sheba until, I recently heard about this place mentioned on the radio by Tom Hartmen.(Dalo’s Kitchen located between N Williams & Skidmore)
    He was just raving about the food here. So i finally made my way there and fell in love with the vegetarian platter. They give you four traditional dishes (more than enough to share for two) and the price is, get this $4.99, I know it’s hard to believe
    But you just have to try it. The decor is lacking a bit, but i’ve noticed the owners making some subtle improvements
    OH, by the way, the injera served here is made of only teff flour, which is great for those who have wheat allergies. And it’s not overly sour like many other places. I think this place will soon give Queen of sheba a run for it’s money
    Thanks again for your informative review!

    • Ahmed says

      I guess my friend you are used to eating tasteless burgers, taco bells, cheap frozen food that is made ready for you at an instant. Tell me please what kind of dishes do you eat in any restaurant. I have been in USA for 20 years and I did not find a good dish that is satisfying and filling like the Ethiopian food. let me illustrate:

      — Mexican food , the best dish is beef fajita
      — American food Steaks just to name two

      Tell me where is the variety in foods in restaurants. You get a big menu with one side sandwiches, other side steaks, and last but not least desserts.

      In regards to the names of the foods , the idea is an exposure to the Ethiopian culture . it is not to know how to pronounce it or memorize it.Just read each order composition and enjoy.

      In regards to the Injera it is a fine, and a filling bread. You do not have to eat it with your hands. Again, it is means to culture exposure
      i.e. Ethiopians use their hands to eat . It is not utensils. It is a genuine bread.

      Please do not reply to me with fancy names of foods in restaurants to convince me that it is a good dish.

      To illustrate I was in a restaurant I do not remember the name of it , I ordered a fancy dish that had a fancy name( just to break the habit of ordering steak– mentioned previously it is the only good dish on those big menus). I was served things that do not look like food, tasteless, “soggy” slimmy stuff sticking out of it. One more example for the record, you will like this one my friend, I ordered a “flaming” chicken– that was the name of the order– at a Thailand restaurant. i received a chicken on “flames” practically.

      I come from a country called Yemen, our food and the Ethiopian one by far are the best. If you would like to try it you can find Yemeni restaurants in New York as well as Michigan.

      Ethiopian dishes that are my favorites are —
      — Zigny( Doro Wat)– it is a Injera topped with gravy( Zigny) chicken and
      an egg.
      — Zigny with beef, instead.
      — Tibbs

      Yemeni Food if you get the chance to visit one of them :

      — Fish in the oven( Moofa). In the restaurant when you order that dish , you will be asked to go the fridge to pick your fish “fresh” then it will be cooked to perfection for you. It will not be “deep fried” for you which I am very sure that is how you eat your fish. ” Everything is “fried” Yummy !!!.

      — Lamp soup.

      I hope that your next visit to an Ethiopian restaurant would be a filling nutritious , and healthy one.

      A last note are you used to the Chinese namings of their food by now or would you rather that it is too simplified for you. I believe there is a dish with the name chow pow chicken

  4. rawhide says

    “I know it is part of the culture and the whole experience but I kept wishing I could skip it and just use a fork.” !!
    How about skipping ethnic food altogether and sticking with burgers!
    I think some dishes at Jarra’s taste better than QoS (I havn’t tried them all), but there the atmosphere at Jarra’s takes a bit getting used to for some people. Its a bit dingy, quiet and musky (but great food).

  5. otter says

    Even though I live a few blocks from Queen of Sheba, I am hooked on Dalo’s. I recently went back to QoS out of convenience and the injera seemed dry in comparison. I will definitely miss the ginger juice, but Dalo’s has better quality at a lower price.

    • James says

      I live a few blocks from Queen of Sheba too. Is Dalo’s close by? I’m hungry. Maybe I will look it up because I have a problem with how expensive Queen of Sheba is sometimes even though I enjoy the food. Sometimes I get a small portion of meat though. Thanks… Look up Dalo’s now. I hope that it is closeby. Peace. :=)

  6. James says

    I like the owners of Queen of Sheba in Portland. The thing that I wanted to say is that they are almost ready to move into a really nice newly constructed building if everything works out. So, hopefully this reviewer could go back again and do another review after they are settled.

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