The red chinese flag with its golden stars flutters in the wind on the 300 block of Park Avenue, the site of Baltimore's historic Chinatown (Chinatown actually started a couple blocks away, on the 200 block of Marion Street). The flag hangs from the only Chinese restaurant left on the block, Zhongshan, which sits beside a lone Asian grocery, amidst what was until quite recently a rather desolate block.
Now, the red, yellow, and green of the Ethiopian flag dominate the newly burgeoning block as two restaurants, a cafe, and a market, all Ethiopian, have recently opened there. (Another establishment, Bouillabaisse Cafe, has also added to the block's economy, and just a block further down is Adventures in Music, one of the best record stores in town.)
In Washington, D.C., there are enough Ethiopian restaurants to make it something of a dining scene. There are high-end places like DAS, and then clusters of them around U Street and Adams Morgan. But here in Baltimore, we've had few options. Eden's Lounge serves some Ethiopian dishes, but food is not the clubby joint's focus. For a while there was a place over in Pigtown, but the main option has been Dukem, which has led to uneven experiences.
Tabor (328 Park Ave.,  528-7234) is not exactly new. We ate at its West Mulberry Street location for our Cheap Eats section back in 2010, but after its move around the corner to Park Avenue, it seems to serve as the anchor of the Little Addis Ababa on the 300 block of Park Avenue, overtaking Chinatown. (The owner of Tabor says that the proprietors of the Kana Mart next door, where they sell fresh Ethiopian spices and injera bread, is an old friend.)
On our first trip, we ordered the nine-item veggie combo ($13)-actually, we always order this at Ethiopian restaurants. Ethiopian cuisine is a vegetarian's dream. With red, green, and brown spiced lentils, yellow peas, a tomato, onion, and jalapeno salad, collard greens, potatoes, shiro (a chickpea powder and spice-based puree), and, at Tabor, beets as well (which we'd never had at an Ethiopian place before), you get a ton of textures, flavors, and protein. And scooping them all up with the spongy injera bread is both communal and fun. (When you finish all of your injera, there is the injera the platter is plated on, which has soaked up all the juices, to devour.)
This veggie platter was better and fresher than any we'd had in town on the first visit. Dukem can feel a bit greasy and heavy, but on a hot day, Tabor's vegetables felt light and thin. (They are BYOB for now, so bring some beer to go with it.) On our second visit, the vegetable dishes didn't seem quite as fresh and revelatory as they did the first time, but that may have had to do with our choice of meats.
We went with an old favorite on our first visit to Tabor, ordering the special tibs ($13), which has lamb, tomato, peppers, and a pasty pepper sauce on the side. It came out steaming and sizzling, cooked to perfection, with crispy chunks around the edges and a juicy center (Dukem's tibs sometimes seem underdone). We knew we loved tibs, so on the second visit, we ventured out with the meat options, ordering doro wot ($14), a dish with chicken and a boiled egg in a spicy red sauce. It was utterly delicious (even if the egg was kind of weird on the plate and hard to eat with a handful of spongy bread), except that there was not enough chicken in the sauce; many bites brought up not even a morsel of the perfectly cooked bird. (They also offer beef wot in the same sauce.)
We also ordered quanta firfir, described on the menu as "beef jerky, hot pepper sauce, injera." The "beef jerky" consisted of tough little cubes of very gamey meat which was not at all unpleasant, but in this dish, the injera is a different ball game. We'd noticed at the neighboring Kana Mart that they sold dried injera and discovered that this type of dish is made by cooking the dried-out bread with the meat and the spices, leaving everything like a mound of sopping wet sponges sprinkled with cubes of beef. It wasn't to our taste, but we're glad we tried it.
Across the street, directly beside the Asian Market, is GoJo (317 Park Ave.,  570-0086), which had just opened when we visited, offering a very limited menu of the veggie platter ($7.99 lunch/$8.99 dinner) and the special tibs. We were happy with those options, honestly, relieved to have an excuse to get our favorites. The first really interesting thing about Gojo is the seating arrangement, which is not the more Western style table setups of Tabor or Dukem, but low-set, straight-backed chairs set in front of a wicker container called a "mesop," which is used to keep injera fresh. The waitress brings your food and drinks, and spreads them out on a number of these small wicker baskets in front of you. It was not the most comfortable, but what we lost in comfort was made up for with novelty and (presumably) authenticity. It was fun.
And the food was spectacular. The tibs ($12), cooked with a bit of rosemary, were even better than at Tabor, the meat chunks again cooked crispy on the outside yet maintaining a soft, succulent center.
As with any truly great ethnic restaurant, at both places, it is hard to communicate with the staff, who are all very nice but have extremely limited English. Hypnotic, droning music videos of a heavyset woman singing in a pastoral setting with groups of men and women doing elaborately choreographed dances that primarily consist of shoulder-moves dominate one television, and soccer games dominate another. We've never found the Lucy Sport Cafe open (and the windows are darkened) but we imagine it is that same kind of vibe-without the great food.
These new restaurants and stores have taken a block that was feeling empty and dilapidated and made it feel like one of the most exciting spots in the city's culinary scene. Get a window seat, because there's still always something interesting to see outside here. Welcome to Little Ethiopia.