One of the hardest reservations to get in the greater Los Angeles area is a parking space in Little Ethiopia, that grain of Fairfax Avenue between W. Olympic Boulevard and Whitworth Drive where the constant gridlock leads one to believe that all roads lead to Addis. The block itself is an allusion to Ethiopian cuisine, a collection of vibrant restaurants and tribes gathered together on a communal plate. This is where kitfo (raw meat in warm clarified butter and spices), wots (various stews), and a goldmine of vegan dishes are cooked with Eastern spices and fiery bebere (chilies and various spices). All food is engineered for sharing on a bed of spongy injeera (thin fermented bread made from tef flour). It’s a tactile dining experience, so wash your hands and let’s tear off a taste of Africa by exploring one of LA’s coolest international enclaves: Little Ethiopia.
Located just outside Little Ethiopia, Awash (5990 1/2 W. Pico Blvd.,Los Angeles, CA 90035, (323) 939-3233) is a destination for an older Ethiopian crowd that favors the nation’s Solomonic dynasty over tribal decor. At Awash, the walls are covered with pictures of Ethiopia’s last ruling monarch, Haile Selassie I. Awash is a house of tibs (meat), the closest thing to an Ethiopian steakhouse, where beef is stewed, sautéed and seared in royal fashion. Zilzil tibs are a sure bet here; strips of sirloin steak are seasoned with garlic, black pepper and nit'ir k'ibe (spiced clarified butter) and seared on a skillet that’s delivered to your table. Long live the King.
Buna Ethiopian Market
One of the newcomers to Little Ethiopia is a buna (or coffee shop) (1034 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90019 (323) 964-9731) and market that also has a small menu with some of the best cooking on the street. All the other restaurants have fried whole trout (Ye'assa T'ibs), but here it’s baked, juicy and tender. The fish is scored in bite-sized chunks that easily pull away with palm-sized patches of injeera. The side of salads and stews of split peas, lentils, greens, cabbage, and chickpeas are brightly seasoned, highlighting their natural flavors. When the Ethiopian national soccer team, the Walia Antelopes, is on the tube, regulars swear it’s like an afternoon at a café in Addis.
Little Ethiopia Restaurant
Little Ethiopia Restaurant (1048 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90019 (323) 930-2808) is the only place you can get an Ethiopian breakfast every day of the week. The other restaurants only have dishes like ful medames (a dish borrowed from Egypt with Ethiopian spices), a thick, mashed, fava bean stew with berbere (chili), olive oil and ample amounts of garlic. The fit fit, a pile of bits of injeera sautéed in a spice mix that's something like Ethiopian hash, or the leftover injeera that’s soaked up brick red, tart medley.
Meals by Genet
Doro wot (stewed chicken) is a celebration dish—chicken, and meat in general is a luxury in Ethiopia—a dish that’s compromised by the fast pace of a restaurant, like a feijoada, cassoulet, or a paella. But rather than wait for an invite to an Ethiopian celebration, you’re in good hands with chef Genet Agonafer of Meals by Genet (1053 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90019 (323) 938-9304) in the most established Ethiopian restaurant on the row. The ratio of poultry and hard boiled eggs in a dense, dark, smoky berbere stew is opulent when compared to the soupier version found in the motherland. Genet recommends taking the stew-soaked injeera home to make a wrap of fried eggs and the stained bread.
This off-Little Ethiopia hangout (3182 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90019) does a steady business in made to order dishes from a small menu of about 7 items, house made injeera, and dried injeera chips that are picked up by a 100% Ethiopian clientele. It’s a vegan tourist, and patchouli oil scented hippie-free dining experience at LA’s most Ethiopian restaurant. One of the four 2-tops is always occupied by the friendly owner who recommends the awaze tibs (sautéed beef strips), onion and jalapeño in a fragrant red oil of nit'ir k'ibe and berbere. Take it to the next level and order a dollop of clarified butter with berbere on a round of injeera with coffee —this is quintessential Ethiopia.
Many are tempted to order the vegetable combination dishes at the more popular restaurants in Little Ethiopia, but Ethiopians love their meat, too. Ethiopian regional cuisines have been mutually adopted in all tribal areas. Merkato (1036 1/2 S. Fairfax Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90019 (323) 935-1775) is a market and Ethiopian cultural center that serves the best raw meat dishes of the Gurage people, like a mouthwatering kitfo, or raw minced beef in clarified butter. Tere siga (raw chunks of beef) is served with a spicy dipping sauce and mit'mita, a peppery blend of chili and spices that’s found on all Ethiopian restaurant tables. If raw isn't your thing, get the dulet (chopped lamb tripe and liver) and lean beef cooked with Ethiopian seasoning. Of course, you can ask for it to be less cooked if you want a smile from the waitress.
The 28-year-old Messob (1041 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90019, (323) 938-8827) is a Little Ethiopia institution, named after straw tables designed to place diners in a tight circle. Intimate dining is, above all else, the driving force in Ethiopian cuisine, and the practice of gursha (hand feeding a loved one) is encouraged at Messob. Tear off a small circle of injeera, wrap some food inside to form a ball, and then sensuously place yebeg siga alitcha (a mild, savory lamb stew) into your date’s mouth. Finish the night off with a coffee ceremony, and bask in the aromas of coffee beans as they’re toasted at your table.
Addis-born Alem Mekonnen is the community’s answer to Martha Stewart, full of great ideas to brighten up the Ethiopian kitchen (1905 S. Western Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90018,
(323) 730-0994) that she runs with her daughter, Elanatan, also from Addis. Injeera chips and salsa begin the meal—this goes well with the house made non-alcoholic tej, or honey wine that tastes like the best Orangina you’ve ever had. The ye asa dulet, which is normally a dish of chopped lamb tripe and liver with lean beef, is made with minced, ambrosial fish with jalapenos accompanied by a tearfully hot tomato salad, and greens. All of the food gets a touch of gourmet, and like the best Ethiopian restaurants in town it’s not about the abundance of overflowing party combos of stews—it’s about great cooking.
Rahel Ethiopian Vegan Cuisine
Vegetarianism is a necessity for Eastern Orthodox Ethiopians with regular fasting days—Wednesdays and Friday—and 40 days of fasting during lent. At Rahel Ethiopian Vegan Cuisine (1047 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90019, (323) 937-8401), observant herbivores don’t have to suffer the indignities of faux meats, and carnivores will swoon over the pleasures of healthy vegetables given life and depth from fragrant East African spices. There are grand combos to share with friends, but be sure to get the piquant shiro wot (chickpea stew), or the non-traditional pumpkin, potato, and zucchini stews. Get a glass of addicting suff (sunflower seed drink) to pair with your vegetable medley. If being vegan is wrong here, I don’t want to be right.
Rosalind's (1044 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90019, (323) 936-2486) is the oldest Ethiopian restaurant in the neighborhood, and along with Merkato, has a lively bar on weekends where Ethiopian men titter around bottles of Black Label while taking in Ethiopian bands. Originally this was a Ghanian restaurant, and the appetizers menu remains in honor of the departed. Ghanian akara (black-eyed pea fritters), kelewele (plantains), and O Jo Jo meatballs come with pili pili sauce, a mild pepper sauce to dip the savory treats. After a stop in Ghana, head back to Ethiopia for sambussa, or turnovers filled with a rich stew of lentils and wash it down with Hakim Stout, a bitter Ethiopian beer.