Tucked away in an unassuming storefront on North State Street is Ambo Ethiopian Cuisine, an intimate eatery serving up some of the best feasts in Bellingham. If you’ve never tried Ethiopian food before, get ready– you’re in for a treat.
Ethiopian meals traditionally include a variety of vegetables, meats, and stews known as wat. Everything is served on a base of injera, a spongy fermented flatbread used to scoop up each bite. The cuisine encompasses a variety of both vegan and meat-based dishes, and it’s the best kind of comfort food: Hearty, healthy, and warming on a soul-deep level.
That said, the Ambo experience is about more than (delicious) food– sharing these flavors is also a way to share love. According to owner and chef Mulunesh Belay, Ethiopian meals are a communal experience. She explains that if one person orders a chicken dish while their friend orders lamb, both dishes would come served together on a single round of injera.
“It’s about sharing,” Belay says. “[If] you order only chicken, you taste only chicken. You’re missing the lamb. It’s better to share with your family.”
For those who prefer not to share, it’s still possible to mix and match flavors by ordering half portions of various dishes. Sampling a little bit of everything is part of the fun.
Cuisines from the African continent are highly diverse, but when Belay first moved to Bellingham, none of them were represented in the local restaurant scene. She thus opened a food truck at the Bellingham Farmers Market in 2005 and expanded to a brick-and-mortar after nine years in business. COVID-19 posed challenges, but thanks to support from the community and her devoted clientele, things are still going strong.
Belay built Ambo’s menu by cooking the foods she personally loves, and every item is approached with care and dedication. For example, berbere– the cuisine’s characteristic spice blend– is traditionally made from a mixture of chili, paprika, and other spices. Rather than buying it pre-made, Belay sources each ingredient and creates the blend herself.
Even the injera is made in-house using a combination of four flours. The main ingredient is teff, a tiny grain native to Ethiopia, but Belay’s version also incorporates rice, sorghum, and barley flours. Ambo also offers a coffee ceremony featuring chechebsa (a breakfast dish of bread fried with berbere and spiced butter), and the coffee is made from beans that Belay roasts herself.
“I learned from my grandmother, my mother, and also I came from a big family,” Belay says. “I cook all the time for my siblings. [In Africa] you always cook for family.”
Ambo’s menu is small, meaning that it’s impossible to go wrong when ordering. My partner and I shared the Alicha Wat, or lamb stew ($14 for a full serving or $10 for half). This sumptuous, expertly spiced dish is simmered in a broth of turmeric, ginger, garlic, and onion.
Another meat-based option is Doro Wat, or chicken stew ( $13 full / $9.50 half). Belay cites this as one of her most popular dishes, and she has been cooking it for hungry customers since the farmers market days.
We also feasted on Yekik Wat ($12 full / $8.50 half), made from yellow split peas and turmeric, and Yemisir Wat ($12 full / $8.50 half), or green lentils stewed with a variety of spices. All this came served on injera with sides of potato and cabbage stew as well as homemade cottage cheese. Needless to say, everything was fantastic.
Before I finished my meal, the couple eating beside us made a point to tell me that Ambo is their all-time favorite restaurant. Another group agreed, and soon the entire dining area was enthusiastically singing Ambo’s praises. Belay says this feeling of appreciation is mutual.
“I’m thankful for Bellingham people– people who help me, people who encourage me,” she says. “Without people, you can’t do it by yourself.”
For those who’d like to try their hand at whipping up Ethiopian meals at home, Belay’s book, “Ethiopian Feast: The Crown Jewel of African Cuisine,” is available at Village Books in Fairhaven. Ambo is open Monday-Saturday from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 8.p.m. 902 N. State St., Bellingham, 360.756.1627 amboethiopian.com