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Abyssinia & Fiume: The Hipster Hotspot And The Ethiopian Joint.

January 16, 2013

Abyssinia01SmallThad Suzenski, from, eats with his hands downstairs at Abyssinia, and then jams upstairs at Fiume. Photos by Gabrielle Lavin.

Ethiopian food has a cult-like following. It’s safe to say that Washington D.C. is the North American hotbed of this cuisine, with an unofficial estimate of five-sixths of the Ethiopian-American population residing there. That said, we have our own population in Philadelphia that is dedicated to the flavorful fare.

In our fair city, it is well known that West Philly is the Mecca of Ethiopian culinary establishments. Abyssinia/Fiume in particular stands ahead of the pack, notable for its interesting combination of hole-in-the-wall music joint upstairs and authentic Ethiopian restaurant downstairs.

You are greeted with two completely different operations under the same roof  and same ownership.  

“For the past 30 years, there has always been something going on in the second floor,” says Kevin James Holland, the manager of Fiume (upstairs), which is no larger than your friend’s studio apartment.

Fiume is a an intimate, live music joint that’s a sure bet after a satisfying meal downstairs at Abyssinia. It’s also an under-the-radar hotspot for the discerning whiskey connoisseur, with more than 80 varieties. And they boast more than 120 bottled beers and an ever-evolving list of craft cocktails.

“In 2001, a group of self-proclaimed anarchists began managing the spot,” Holland says. “Offering the likes of Jagermeister & Corona, they ran the place for several months before losing interest and disbanding. I became the operator and Fiume evolved from anarchy into what I like to think of as a benevolent dictatorship.”

The music scene is one of the best-kept secrets in the city, which is good because you might not get in if it was better known. But before the music, there is food.

Abyssinia03SmallWhen you break it down to its most basic, you can sum up Ethiopian food with two words, injera and wat. It’s generally understood that you get your hands into both prior to hitting Fiume. And with good reason – you have to pass through Abyssinia to even reach the venue. This strange juxtaposition has two worlds colliding, with a charmingly dingy, extremely ethnic restaurant meeting a hidden bar that is one part Portlandia, one part Anne Frank.

Most everything served at Abyssinia comes in a thick stew, called wat, usually served atop a giant piece of spongy bread, injera. This can be both good and bad. It’s great if you are comfortable eating with your hands and are not grossed out by the people with whom you are sharing the meal. It’s terrible if you’re dining with some dirty finger-nailed, picky eater, someone who questions the cleanliness of the kitchen or anyone who isn’t into trying some raw beef.

When you’re ready for the tour de force, here is what to do.

Order a beer because this is going to make you sweat. Hoppy beer works well with the smack-you-in-the-mouth flavors and spices of Ethiopian cuisine.

Next, you must try the kitfo, as this is the barometer used to judge the quality of Ethiopian food. Kitfo is basically a tartar, minced raw beef marinated in mitmita, which is a spice blend consisting of ground African birdseye chili peppers, cardamom seed, cloves and salt. While you may be a bit squeamish about eating raw beef from a place that looks less than spic and span, give it a shot. The mincing of the beef makes it tender and the wallop of the pungent spices explodes in your mouth. This particular version is served with collard greens and ayib, a spiced cottage cheese.

Abyssinia02SmallAnything else is up to you. Try one of the vegetarian combination platters, and intersperse one or two of the other meat types. Each item is completely different, yet all work well together.

The injera, a sour, spongy bread, is the main event at any Ethiopian meal. Your entire order will be served on a comically large plate, with a giant piece of injera draped over it. It will serve as your utensils – simply pull off a piece and use your thumb and forefingers to pinch whatever food your heart desires.

You have now experienced Ethiopian food. Try to stop sweating. Then head upstairs to Fiume, where you’ll cram into 150 square feet with 30 other people to enjoy the live music. Pick your poison: blues with Shakey Lymon, the Perseverance Jazz Band, gypsy/django jazz band OctoMonkey, or the Citywide Specials (starring manager Kevin Holland) performing live traditional bluegrass.

One of the added benefits of having both a restaurant and a venue is that you can tailor your evening to your mood. Want to sit at a bar and listen to a Fred Armisen lookalike wax poetically about which house-infused cocktail ingredients they are offering that day? Hit Fiume early (where you can also eat food from downstairs). More in the mood for an unusual meal at your Ethiopian neighbor’s house? Sit downstairs at Abyssinia.

Either way, stay for the music.

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