Each week the Orient spotlights different aspects of the arts and entertainment scene in Portland. This week's installment focues on ethnic food.
This week we headed to Portland and rewarded our taste buds with a transcontinental dining experience. Although Brunswick's downtown is home to an increasingly diverse selection of ethnic food eateries, an African restaurant has yet to make that list. So we set out to find one in downtown Portland.
Enter Asmara, a small Eritrean restaurant tucked away on Oak Street, just off Congress Street in the heart of the downtown. Asmara provides an intimate dining experience with only six tables and the intermingling sounds from a small TV and the visible kitchen that becomes part of the dining area.
As we sat waiting for a friend, Asmeret Teklu, the owner, cook and server brought us a warm pot and two glasses: "Some tea while you're waiting," she said. "To keep you warm."
Teklu moved to Portland 13 years ago in April of 1997. Six years ago, in 2004, she opened up this restaurant which she operates single- handedly, although she welcomes help from family during especially-frenzied evenings.
"There are nights when it gets extra busy," Teklu said. "And I call in my husband and young kids."
From our first glance at Asmara's menu, we knew that we had found the traditional African meal we'd been looking for.
On a menu that invited us to "gather around our table, or mossed, to be carried away to our homeland where our traditions of food and family are our greatest gift to the world," we found abundant meat and vegetarian options—all of which looked delicious and hearty.
With that in mind, we asked Teklu what she liked best on the menu.
"Spicy," she said grinning, and asked if we also liked our food keyi, meaning fiery. Scanning the menu, we saw the rather polar spicy-scale: either keyi, or altitcha, meaning milder, and so we bravely took her advice and ordered our entrees keyi, although with trepidation.
To start our meal, we had deep-fried cauliflower and broccoli dipped in chickpea powder. Although these appetizers were good, the main course certainly provided the most memorable part of the dining experience.
Although the menu explains the presentation and the eating to be communal, Asmara redefined the idea of communal eating for us in a way that was both aesthetically beautiful and entertaining.
At Asmara, silverware and individual plates are not to be found. Instead, our three entrees, lamb, chicken and vegetarian, were all served alongside each other on three large pieces of a flatbread called injera. A variety of stebhi, sauces and stews, sat atop the fan of flatbread beside our dishes and as Teklu set the platter between us, it seemed an edible color wheel: soft green salads and a red lentil stew mixing in with the deep orange of carrots and potatoes in their yellow sauce.
And so with only our fingers and several napkins to clear the inevitable mess, we began pulling off pieces of the injera and scooped from the platter before us.
The dishes were hearty, spicy and satiating, each with their own distinct taste that the porous injera soaked up, functioning much like an edible sponge. With a taste similar to sourdough, injera added a mild sourness to every bite, although one that was pleasantly overcome by the stronger spices lingering in the dishes and side sauces.
As the menu and the hearty taste implied, these Eritrean meals are ones steeped in tradition for Teklu and her family.
"I learned to cook from my mother when I was very young," Teklu said. "And when my daughter is older"—she held up a hand to indicate that, as of now, her daughter barely clears her hip—"I will teach her [to cook] as well."
Semblances of this tradition in food and family cling to Asmara's walls and, as our meal concluded, we admired the restaurant's traditional decorations. From photographs to woven baskets and even a baby carrier, Teklu explained that all the decorations hailed from Eritrea.
She motioned toward a hand-woven basket hanging on the wall that she had made, as well as a larger version sitting beside the door, that—in a more traditional setting—would hold the large communal bowl in which our meal had been served.
Wiping the traces of our culinary experience off of our fingers with the warm damp towels, and with our stomachs happily full of new spices, we all agreed that Asmara was a find that we would certainly revisit and most definitely recommend to others. With good prices, new tastes, and a beautiful communal spirit that makes any meal one to remember, Asmara is certainly worth the drive to Portland.
51 Oak Street.
Tuesday-Sunday 9:30 a.m.-9 p.m.