The heavily trafficked stretch of Ethiopian-owned businesses along Fairfax Avenue goes by a few different names. It was initially known as Little Addis — a nod to Ethiopia’s capital city of Addis Ababa — when entrepreneurial Ethiopians began laying down roots between Olympic Boulevard and Whitworth Drive in the late ’80s and early ’90s. As the number of restaurants, grocers, clothiers, and salons grew along the corridor, the street was officially anointed Little Ethiopia by the Los Angeles City Council in 2002. But 68-year-old Fekere Gebre-Mariam and his youngest daughter, Meklit, simply call this neighborhood home.
Fairfax Avenue was in a state of transition when Fekere opened the first Ethiopian restaurant there in 1989. The area had previously been known for its thriving Orthodox Jewish community and an accompanying collection of largely Jewish businesses. But over time, the commercial cluster began to wane as owners retired and younger generations grew disinterested in continuing their families’ traditions. The block’s fast-changing demographics and dynamics provided the all-important real estate to make Fekere’s dream of establishing a nucleus for LA’s Ethiopian community a reality. In the years following the opening of Rosalind’s Restaurant, Fekere wooed more Ethiopian businesses to settle on the street and played an instrumental role in nurturing what would ultimately grow into Little Ethiopia.
The area was by all accounts burgeoning by the time Meklit was born in 1993. She grew up among the storefronts on Fairfax and remembers the streets brimming every September in celebration of the Ethiopian new year and running into friends and family every Sunday following church services. And she’ll never forget when she — an 11-year-old self-proclaimed tomboy — was crowned Miss Little Ethiopia in 2004. She donned a fabulous flowy traditional Ethiopian dress and rode through the heart of Little Ethiopia in a top-down convertible waving her hands and grinning from ear to ear in an official parade.
“This is our family’s legacy, my dad’s legacy,” says Meklit. “There’s a little bit of LA that will always have a part of him and our family.”
Nobody knows the history of Little Ethiopia better than Fekere, and nobody understands its vibrant soul like Meklit, so Eater LA tapped this father-daughter duo to show us around the block — sharing some about its founding and a bit about where it’s going — all while touring their go-to restaurants for tongue-tinglingly, throat-clenchingly spicy food. Let’s get right to it.
The way Fekere remembers it, Little Ethiopia was inspired by Koreatown. After finishing his undergraduate degree at USC, he lived in an apartment on Kingsley between Wilshire and Eighth and observed firsthand as the Korean community flourished north of Olympic Boulevard. At first, the newly opened restaurants and markets only filled a few strip malls, but soon businesses ballooned to occupy entire city blocks and ultimately three square miles of the city. “We [saw] how Koreatown was growing by the year and then we say, ‘Wow, that is interesting. Why don’t we have our own area? Why don’t we have our own restaurants?’” he says. “So that thing was going through my mind for a while.” This audacious idea stayed with Fekere as he pursued a career in real estate following college.
Fekere purchased the original Rosalind’s West African Cuisine from its owners in 1988 when a client’s deal fell through on the La Cienega space. But when the building’s owner took it over after a year of business, Rosalind’s moved to its current digs on Fairfax Avenue. The restaurant’s original menu carried over with the relocation and included specialties from Ghana, Nigeria, and Liberia, in addition to Ethiopian standbys. The restaurant eventually streamlined its offerings as demand for Ethiopian cuisine grew along with the local Ethiopian population.
The duo recommends ordering the iconic doro wat — a soul-satisfying, deeply ruddy stew fortified with ground chiles and spiked with warming spices — from what’s become the oldest restaurant on the block. This chicken-and-egg staple has been on the menu since day one and is even considered the national dish of Ethiopia. “We spend three to four hours just on the onion, garlic, and ginger to build the sauce before we put the chicken in,” says Fekere. The doro wat’s bold flavors and balanced heat come from berbere — a blend of spices punctuated with cayenne pepper and New Mexico pepper, along with an irresistibly fragrant hum of garlic, cilantro, fenugreek, cumin, and cardamom. The stew simmers on the stove for the better part of a day — the berbere blooming, mellowing, and imparting just enough heat — and is served alongside wonderfully spongy and tangy injera bread. 1044 South Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles.
After years of working behind the stoves at Ethiopian restaurants Rahel and Marathon on Fairfax, Tenagne Belachew and her six daughters struck out on their own with Lalibela in 2016. Though kitfo is served at nearly all the restaurants in Little Ethiopia, Belachew’s original recipe takes the classic Ethiopian dish to spicier levels with the addition of chopped fresh jalapenos, garlic, and onions.
Though the dish is called Somali kitfo on the menu, its origins are on Fairfax Avenue. Belachew named the dish after Somalia — Ethiopia’s neighboring country to the east — because it is a derivative of Ethiopian kitfo. The two versions share a foundation of finely minced beef, spiced clarified butter (niter kibbeh), and mitmita — another popular spice blend that draws its heat from serrano chiles — but the Somali kitfo differs with its textural snap from the aforementioned aromatics. With every bite, the mitmita hits first with a definitive burn while the sting of fresh chiles lingers a bit longer.
In the Before Times, Lalibela served the Somali kitfo with a cooling romaine and tomato salad in a citrus vinaigrette along with injera. These days, the kitfo can be eaten straight, with injera, or, upon request, stuffed inside a roll as a sandwich. Any way it’s eaten, the Somali kitfo is a textural powerhouse that satisfies with its unexpectedly rich, nuanced heat. 1025 South Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles.
Buna Ethiopian Restaurant & Market
When the owners of a drapery store along Fairfax were looking to offload their storefront and retire, Helina Zerfu and Eyob Tadesse took over the space and converted it into a restaurant and market in 2011. The couple, who met years earlier while working at Eyob’s uncle’s restaurant, Merkato, located two doors down, named it Buna, which means coffee in Amharic, one of the country’s primary languages. Beyond the imported handicrafts and groceries found here, Helina’s mother, Manteghosh, draws upon a collection of family recipes to prepare the restaurant’s well-rounded meat and vegetarian menu. She also makes tiramisu — a culinary remnant from Italy’s brief occupation of Ethiopia during World War II — that most customers enjoy with a mug of strong Ethiopian coffee at the end of every meal. Buna brews yirgacheffe beans sourced from southern Ethiopia, also available for purchase in one-pound bags and in bulk.
Though everything on the menu is thoughtfully made, the very spicy awaze tibs is a favorite of Fekere and Meklit. While it’s a more straightforward and less time-intensive dish than traditional Ethiopian stews, its magic lies in the awaze — a wickedly hot paste made from berbere spices — that’s layered with onions, garlic, tomatoes, jalapenos, and tender cuts of New York beef to make the dish. Served on the side is injera for sauce sopping and a tomato salad to soothe overstimulated taste buds.
“[The awaze tibs are] made to order for each table so you can increase the spiciness if you’re brave,” says Meklit. “I love how flavorful it is because of its rosemary, clarified butter, and awaze sauce.” 1034 South Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles.
Messob Ethiopian Restaurant
The original Messob restaurant opened on La Brea Avenue in 1985. When Fekere approached its owner, Rahel Woldmedhin, in 1991 and shared his vision for a central hub for LA’s Ethiopian community, Woldmedhin was quick to relocate her restaurant to Fairfax Avenue. She relished the idea of the city’s enterprising Ethiopian community growing together along this urban artery.
Located across the street from Rosalind’s, Messob was the second Ethiopian restaurant to open on Fairfax Avenue. “My mom always jokes, ‘Why invite competition?’” says Meklit. “She would tease him and he’s like, ‘No, it’s a community.’”
Today Messob is owned by brothers Berhanu and Getahun Asfaw. While nearly every restaurant on the block prepares kitfo — a dish of ground raw beef that’s richly stained with niter kibbeh and imbued with warm spices like cardamom and hot ones like mitmita — the version served here is particularly noteworthy. “The kitfo dish originated from the Indigenous people called the Gurage,” says Fekere. “The owners happen to be from that area and they do a very good kitfo — they are well known for it.”
Spicing can be tailored to one’s taste — from mild to sweat-inducing hot — but for those who overdo it, there are a few remedies available, including ayib, a crumbly house-made cheese. And, of course, there’s always a supply of imported Ethiopian beers and honey wine.
The joy and beauty of Ethiopian food lie in its communal tradition — a timeless ritual where diners gather around shared platters of soulful stews. Though it’s impossible to come together in the same way through the pandemic, the messob — the traditional woven Ethiopian bread basket that is also used as a communal dining table — patiently awaits diners’ return. 1041 South Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles.
Rahel Ethiopian Vegan Cuisine
After selling her first restaurant, Messob, 20 years ago, Woldmedhin went on to open her eponymous Rahel Ethiopian Vegan Cuisine — one of the only restaurants in Little Ethiopia serving a purely plant-based menu. While there’s usually a balance of meat and vegetables at every Ethiopian meal, the majority of Los Angeles’s Ethiopian population adhere to Orthodox Christian practices that call for fasting two days a week. “In our religion, we fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. We fast a month before Christmas and we fast two months before Easter,” says Fekere. “That means we don’t eat meat, so we eat a lot of vegetables.”
For those similarly inclined to increase their vegetable intake, Rahel is the place to be for deeply flavorful and unapologetically fiery fare. The spicy dish to try here is the pumpkin stew, or yeduba wat, composed of cubed banana squash that’s seasoned with berbere, gently cooked until tender, and finished with fresh jalapenos. The chunky stew is a part of the restaurant’s all-vegan spread, which includes lentils, collard greens, split peas, and zucchini and potato stews.
“I think one of the biggest misconceptions about Ethiopian food is that it’s not friendly to dietary restrictions,” says Meklit. “It’s great for vegans, it’s great for gluten sensitivities. It’s kind of friendly to all diets.” 1047 South Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles.
The weather in Addis Ababa is just like Los Angeles’s — sunny, arid, and perpetually clear skyed. The similarities in both climate and agriculture means that Ethiopian cooking traditions can be replicated halfway around the globe. Merkato, which Fekere originally opened to sell various imported provisions, is the third-oldest restaurant on the block. And while the shelves here are still lined with teff and barley flours, an impressive selection of spices, and plenty more dried goods years later, the dining room has become popular in its own right under the care of owner Dawit Belay.
For Fekere and Maklit, it’s all about the gored gored, a beloved raw beef preparation that’s doubly spiced with mitmita and berbere. “Gored gored uses a lot of awaze and clarified butter making it more flavorful and spicy [than kitfo],” says Meklit.
At Merkato, the dish starts with lean cuts of top-round beef that’s carefully trimmed before being dressed in a thick sauce of spiced clarified butter, awaze, and mitmita. The tender cubes of raw meat cling onto the sauce’s layered flavors, while chopped fresh onion and jalapeno mingle in the heap. Leaning on a combination of dried and fresh chiles, gored gored is one of the hottest dishes in the Ethiopian culinary canon. Merakto serves the dish with additional awaze paste for those seeking an even deeper burn. But worry not, a vinegary chopped tomato salad is on hand to quell all that heat. 1036 1/2 South Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles.
Today, Los Angeles’s Ethiopian community numbers over 100,000, with a dozen businesses operating in Little Ethiopia. However, the ongoing pandemic and its restrictions on communal dining, along with the ever-increasing cost of doing business in the city, makes it impossible to guarantee that the neighborhood’s future will be as bright as its past.
“Ethiopian food culture is one where you sit together, and talk, and eat, and COVID definitely stops that,” says Fekere. “For 10 months, all the restaurants have been closed. About 60 percent of the business just went down.” Lower-than-anticipated sales coupled with the rising costs of real estate pose a tremendous threat to Little Ethiopia’s future. “All these restaurants rent the properties they’re in,” Meklit says. “The neighborhood has been gentrifying and rent has been increasing. It’s scary, because Little Ethiopia could potentially not exist in a decade or less.”
Still, Fekere and Meklit remain optimistic. “We’re actively campaigning the city to make the neighborhood a historical preservation. Every month the Little Ethiopia Business Association comes together to find new ways to protect and support our businesses,” says Meklit. “Our community is fighting hard. We are very hopeful about the future.”