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.