In the not too distant past, strolling Malden Square on a weekend night was an exercise in dodging drifting litter and the occasional dispirited panhandler. It was a market from which a McDonald’s franchise had pulled up stakes.
Evening visitors now can, and in great numbers do, choose from an array of international food offerings, including top-of-the-line Chinese, Asian fusion, Vietnamese, Indian, Moroccan, and Ethiopian.
The latest entrant in the last category is Abiata Cafe and Market, featuring honest and lively dishes served by a friendly and attentive staff of women led by owner and chef Haimanot Legesse.
Abiata, named for a salt lake south of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, is located in a onetime shoe store on Pleasant Street. The dining room is framed by walls of citrusy orange and green that call to mind nothing so much as Popsicles. The cool surroundings, though, belie the intense heat in Abiata’s more vivid offerings.
Legesse says she is re-creating the homemade food of her youth. She and her staff make their injera, the spongy teff-flour Ethiopian bread, every morning, and use only fresh seasonings, including ginger, garlic, cardamom, and cumin, along with mitmita, the fiery red-pepper blend that distinguishes much of her cuisine.
Kitfo, mitmita-infused ground beef soaked in clarified butter, comes raw, rare, or medium; a plastic cup of more mitmita allows diners to adjust the heat upward to suit their palate. Appearing as the star in the Abiata Special Combination ($16.95 for one person, $23.95 for two), it comes with ayib (a sort of dry cottage cheese), gomen (garlicky collard greens) and four vegetable sides (azifa, mashed lentils with lime and mustard, is an outstanding option, as is fasolia, a buttery carrot-and-green-bean melange). Fresh injera lines the platters to soak up the juices and another basket comes on the side. Two couldn’t finish the meal one recent evening and there was enough for the next day’s lunches.
Yesiga wat ($9.95), chunks of beef in butter and chili sauce, is tasty enough but oddly toned down. Spicy chicken ($8.95) is actually subtly seasoned, a heap of breast-meat cubes with rosemary and onions over short-grain rice.
The falafel wrap ($5.50) is a double handful of pita stuffed with the ground chickpea patties (is that a hint of egg?), crusty brown on the outside and fluffy green within, along with lettuce, tomato, and onion. The sandwich, and some lunchtime hamburgers, are part of Legesse’s strategy to bring in a broad clientele who may not know her native cuisine. In that vein, her front window announces free wi-fi, touts her injera, correctly, as “gluten free,’’ and advertises falafel and hummus as vegetarian options.
Desserts don’t appear on the menu, but Abiata generally has fresh baklava and a variety of cookies for those with truly ambitious appetites.
Breakfast seems slow in catching on, but early risers can sample spicy scrambled eggs over injera ($4.95); foul, the pan-Middle Eastern fava-bean staple ($4.50); or the homey Ethiopian kinche ($4.95), a dish of cracked oats, clarified butter, and mitmita. Fit fit ($5.50), a breakfast dish based on injera pieces — a good use of leftovers — comes in three iterations of seasonings and add-ins.
This restaurant marks Legesse’s return to the Boston food scene. In 1997 she operated A Touch of Merkato, an Ethiopian spice and staples shop in the South End. Then came a 14-year child-rearing break before she decided to open Abiata. The Newton resident looked for space in Cambridge but, she says, more attractive rents lured her to a bigger shop in Malden.
In the back of Abiata, she runs a small Ethiopian/Middle Eastern food market, where she offers her fresh injera, but says she is considering expanding the restaurant and hopes to bring full Ethiopian coffee service to Malden this fall.
“I’m very happy here,’’ she says, “I have a lot of room to grow.’’