Queen of Sheba logoIt was quite an ironic evening, as multitudes of you wrote down you wanted to eat at Queen of Sheba, but it was our most poorly attended dinner in months. That’s okay though, as the holidays are approaching and schedules are tighter, and illness is afoot, and those of you who came were lots of fun. That being said, however, I don’t want to hear any of the absent whining in the future about wanting to go to places like Queen of Sheba, this was your chance at that third world dining experience. But also, thank you to most of my regulars who couldn’t come and let me know that, and to my two last minute drop outs who got ill and had to work, thank you for letting us know not to wait for you. Your efforts are appreciated.

Two of our attendees, Marnie and Leo, kindly volunteered to write the majority of the Dining Report. Marnie’s a well seasoned writer with a good sense of humor, so for more of her fun writing check out her blog at her website listed at the bottom of her review. I’m going to tack on a few comments at the bottom, since we all know I can ever let anyone have the last word.

Here’s Marnie and Leonardo:

If we stopped with first impressions, we’d probably still be hungry.

Before the meal
Earlier in the day, on Friday, Leo and I popped over to the Queen of Sheba website. Well, truth be told it’s not so much a web site as a web page, lacking more than one page and any sort of useful information beyond the address, hours of operation and the tag line “We make the spice, The spice is good.” One wonders if they were channeling an as yet unwritten Spice Girls tune to be released as a part of a reunion tour. However, not everyone is blessed with resources and time (and let’s face it, irresistible charm) necessary to become a web master and so we decided to brave the relative unknown.

After 5 years of living somewhere where a 10 mile drive can take 2 hours, we were, as usual, very early. We drove by the Queen of Sheba, checked the sign, looked inside, and decided to drive around the block once more to be sure we had the correct Queen of Sheba. Perhaps that was Queen of Sheba Pizza Parlor, or Queen of Sheba Deli. It certainly didn’t look like what we expected. There was really only one thing to do. We parked and headed across the street to a Tavern and had ourselves a beer until it was time to meet our cohorts.

When 7:30 rolled around we made our way into the restaurant and perused the wine list. If there’s a grape you prefer, it’s probably on the menu, but don’t expect to see anything about years or vintners. This is a step up from tapping a box for your selection. The beer selection is probably a safer bet, if you want some assurance of what you’ll be drinking.

The meal
The four of us ordered our selections from the menu. As with most Ethiopian restaurants, the meal would be served family style on a platter and eaten with ones fingers with only bits of a soft flat bread to keep your finger cooties (technical term) from touching the remaining food. This is not a place to bring the guy still recovering from his bout of bird flu.

Jackie ordered a beef and mushroom dish, Frank ordered 3 vegetarian options, Leo ordered lamb and I ordered a chicken dish. Looking at their take out menu does nothing to help me remember the specific dishes as many sound very similar, but all of our dishes were quite flavorful and ranged from mild to spicy. The beef dish had a strong and delightful lemon flavor. The chicken dish was served on the bone and topped with hard boiled eggs. It was one of the spicier choices but no one found it excessively so. The lamb was stewed with vegetables and a mild seasoning. And Franks three vegetarian dishes, along with the fresh salad were all rich and savory enough to stand on their own. I enjoyed all of the items served and found them filling without being overly heavy. The beef dish was my personal favorite.

Several people remarked that the bread was a bit sour and darker in color than they expected. I am a huge fan of all things sour (except, perhaps, milk) so I hadn’t really taken note, but if you are not so much a fan of the sour breads, this might be a turn off for you (remember, no forks, just bread). However, they were not stingy with the bread and it was soft and well matched to the dish.

Overall impression

This is not a place you’ll go on a first date. The ambiance is more cheap Chinese food restaurant meets Pizza Hut, than it is a romantic dining experience, and if you have to drink to survive the date, you’ll probably find yourself in a great deal of pain come morning. But if what you want is a delicious meal with options for vegetarians and meat eaters alike, this is a wonderful choice. My only regret is not having leftovers to enjoy today. The restaurant was doing brisk business on that Friday night, which didn’t let up during our visit, so reservations seem like a good precaution. If you prefer a more cozy atmosphere, this would be a great choice for take out and it would even afford those of you with finger food aversions to break out a utensil or two.

Jackie’s weird impressions on Queen of Sheba:

First of all, kudos to Marnie and Leo for having the guts to enter that unnamed tavern about a block from Queen of Sheba (incidently, I really don’t think it has a name, or maybe just no sign.) Countless times I have sat in my warm and comfy confines of a window booth at Echo thinking, wow, that tavern looks like utter skankville. Thanks for confirming this, M & L.

Initially, let me say, I found the quality of the food at Queen of Sheba good, although a tad limited for my tastes. If you’re like me, and have a palate not geared towards stewed foods, this is not the place for you. The only non-stewed item on the food menu was the one green salad. Even the bread seemed a tad stewed, or at least steamed. That being said, I tasted everything, and as a general rule I thought everything was good except for the lamb (I just don’t like lamb, it wasn’t the preparation.) Basically all the food was prepared in one of two ways, the mild, savory preparation (aliche?) or the hot and spicy presentation. That’s why Marnie had a hard time picking out the dishes ordered, as basically the same few items appeared all over the menu, prepared in either the milder or spicier way. One of the vegetables, the lentils was spicier than the others, but that was because the spicier version was chosen. The mushroom dish was incredibly savory but somewhat mellow. I chose the aliche presentation for my mushrooms and beef, and it was very good. Marnie chose the spicy preparation for the chicken (lemon washed chicken legs,) and while spicy, nothing was as palate warping as the meal I had years ago at Portland’s leading Ethiopian outpost, Jarras.

If you want an unusual dining experience, this is a recommended venue. As Marnie alluded to, however, certain parts of Queen of Sheba could use some work to make for a pleasant and ambient evening of dining. The space itself is one step from bleak, at least the south side dining room where we sat was. The lumpy, worn out old carpet reminded me of some public health agency discard from the 70s, and the mood was hardly improved by the sad collection of posters, wobbly chairs, frighteningly bright lighting, and sad but psuedo-glitzy tablecloths. I feel relentlessly evil pointing such things out, as I realize that many of the Ethiopian business people here support numerous family members back in Africa with the money earned from their establishments, but Queen of Sheba could be vastly improved with a more pleasant wall treatment than dingy old wood paneling, some creative paint selections, a nicer carpet, (or none at all,) some classier chairs and some new tablecloths. I’m not asking for Bluehour here, but how about a little African flavor to the furnishings?

Also, the gigantic porcelain dish our communal meal was served in screamed “bedpan” to me. Couldn’t they find something a little nicer to serve the food in? I understand porcelain is durable, but the battered state of our bowl garnered speculation at our table on just how old it might be, and how many times it had been dropped (and chipped.) And the bread created many issues with my “I love santitation psyche.” I certainly forced myself to eat plenty of it, but it wasn’t that easy for me, mainly because of the peculiar coloration, a dubious shade of brownish pink. I know a pinkish hue is valued in a cheek, but in a bread? I had to keep pushing to the back of my mind thoughts that I was wrapping my food in a big flat cow’s tongue, or a well-soaked fabric band-aid. Band-aid is never a good food color for me. And in contrast to Marnie, I am not a fan of all things sour, sour is a bane to my existence. Luckily most of the food was hearty and flavorful enough to mask the breads spongy sour flavoring.

My last snippy comment would concern the service. Although the owner and the sweet Ethiopian girl (daughter, perhaps?) who helped out at our table were extremely pleasant and welcoming types, our poor world- weary waitress didn’t seem to understand much about relaxed dining or giving people a chance to slowly inebriate themselves with their drinks while perusing the menu. You should not expect someone to order one minute after they have joined the table (sorry, Frank.) I’m glad to see authentic ethnicities when I go to “exotic” restaurants (where are they hiding the Indian people at Swaagat??) but I would prefer if my waitress didn’t make we want to burst into tears of sadness at my table. (At least until the bill comes.) This poor woman seemed to carry the weight of all Africa’s woes on her tired, bird-thin back. But on a brighter note, at least someone out there makes me look happy and cheery in appearance.

Okay, I admit I’m kind of a restaurant snob, I do like nice decor when I eat, it ads to my experience. Although it’s a favorite of mine, Pambiche is about as low-end as I want to go. But Pambiche, at least, although downscale, oozes authentic decor. A place doesn’t have to go expensive, funky’s fine for me. But please, make a little effort towards authentic, or offbeat, or homey, something that makes me want to come back to a place with decent food. (Although I will always have issues with pinky bread.)