Abay Market, Bailey’s Crossroads, VA

I had lunch at Abay Market yesterday because I’d been craving meat. As before, there are only about five tables, and the place is a complete, total dive. It is in a long strip of shops and restaurants that I believe is the most dense strip of Ethiopian shops in the DC area, including Little Ethiopia downtown. The signage of some of these places is so vague that it’s hard to tell if they’re markets, cafes, stores, or a combination of the above. But I think it’s safe to say that within a 150-yard-long strip of stores (maybe a two-minute walk down the two side-by-side strip malls), there are a good dozen places serving Ethiopian food.

You walk into Abay, and there’s a cash register in front of you, 6-7 different types of injera for sale right next to it (from five different local producers – I counted), and right behind that, a small seating area with about 4-5 cheap tables and chairs. It’s about as bare-boned as it gets.

The proprietors, one man (proprietor Yonas Alemayehu) and one woman, were bemused to see me ask for a menu. There was one other table of Ethiopian gentlemen enjoying a soccer match on TV, and I was handed what I guess could be called a “menu,” which listed exactly five different meat courses, and then some type of special on the inside of the menu, along with 2-3 pages of aging reviews.

I wanted raw meat, and not much of anything else, and that’s precisely what I got. My Kitfo ($16.35 (*)) was translated as “Stake Tatar,” finely chopped sirloin with kibe (purified butter) and mitmita (Ethiopian seasoned pepper), and can be served raw, medium, well-done, anyway you want it. After I put my order in, I walked up to the cashier and asked if they had any injera made with teff, and the Mr Alemayehu didn’t quite understand me. “You want the dark one?” he asked. “Sure,” I said.

Before I left, I perused the injera selection, and they all list teff as the primary ingredient, with “self-rising flour” as the second ingredient – all of them did. I don’t know if “self-rising flour” is wheat, or something else. I had reached the limits of my knowledge, and as I type this, I still don’t know if my injera was made with 100% teff, or simply with teff as its primary grass. Well, regardless, I got “the dark one” and it was very good.

The kitfo arrived, on a platter of injera, with one extra piece rolled up alongside. I got a subtle reminder from Langano a couple weeks ago not to overload on injera, so on this day I employed a “biting strategy” that involved picking up the kitfo with injera, but then only biting 2/3 of the way down instead of putting the whole thing in my mouth. This way, the same piece of injera can be used several times over, and you can maximize the meat aspect instead of filling up on bread.

And it’s a good thing, too, because the amount of sirloin I got was so huge that it was clearly meant for two people. A huge, softball-sized pile of raw sirloin, with just enough kibe to hold it together, offered with a small pile of homemade Ethiopian cheese, and some extra mitmita powder alongside. Other than these two things, it was essentially a gigantic portion of meat – spicy, too.

I really hadn’t planned on eating such a large lunch, as it was getting close to 1 PM, but there was no way I was going to waste this. It was so good I couldn’t believe it – far and away the best kitfo I’ve ever eaten. If you’ve never been here, then no matter how good you think the kitfo you’ve tried has been, I’m pretty sure this will be better. It was just about perfect, and with my “save the injera” technique, I managed to finish every bite before leaving, stuffed to the gills.

Mr Alemayehu, clearly amused that someone like me had ordered such a thing, asked me if I knew Anthony Bourdain (sigh), and that he’d been into his market. “Yes, I actually just heard this today,” I said. But what I didn’t know is that he apparently comes back, without cameras, and enjoys the kitfo on his own sometimes when he’s in town. And I don’t blame him because it’s terrific.

(*) I’m assuming the price was $16.35 because the bill I got at the register (which included tax) was the odd amount $17.17. I believe Bailey’s Crossroads is in Fairfax County, but not Falls Church City, which means the sales tax is 4% state + 1% county – that would make the kitfo $16.35. Regardless, it was too cheap, and I felt guilty not having any space on the receipt to leave a tip. So I took out what I had – a five-dollar bill – and just told him to keep it. This was surely a pound of meat, freshly prepared, and it was robbery at that price.

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