In a small strip mall just off of the 210 Freeway sits Ranch Side Cafe — a breakfast cafe in Lake View Terrace, near the horse ranches in Sylmar. Inside, regulars dine on oversized chile relleno burritos doused in ranchero sauce. On one table, there’s French toast with crispy bacon; on another, a colorful medley of Ethiopian stews sit on top of housemade injera. This combination might be unexpected, especially in semi-rural Lake View Terrace. For 28 years, Ranch Side Cafe has served hearty American and Mexican breakfasts to people in the local area and those visiting the horse stables. It also happens to be the only place in the San Fernando Valley serving Ethiopian food.
The area around Sylmar is one of the last remaining horse communities in California, with ranches, boarding stables, and equestrian parks just 30 miles from the lights of Hollywood. Ethiopian American sisters Zenashe and Weynitu Bayou initially ran a dry cleaning business in the area for five years before the owner of a restaurant nearby called Toby’s Bullseye asked them to help him manage it. “He realized he wasn’t doing well so he sold it to us,” Zenashe says, “exactly 28 years ago.”
The Bayou sisters revamped the restaurant and decided to name it Ranch Side Cafe. In these early days, they surveyed the local community and found a demand for breakfast joints — there weren’t many morning options in the area. They started serving omelets, pancakes, eggs Benedict, breakfast burritos, and biscuits and gravy all day. Then, the menu expanded to include burgers, salads, and sandwiches for lunch, plus a large chile relleno burrito topped with sour cream, guacamole, and ranchero sauce.
The Bayou sisters didn’t think Ethiopian food would be popular in the area, especially since they didn’t have Ethiopian clientele, so for the first 16 years they stuck only to their American and Mexican American menu. But over the years, more customers who had tried the cuisine before asked why the sisters didn’t serve Ethiopian food, and those who had never tasted it expressed interest in trying its staples.
The sisters were initially concerned that adding Ethiopian dishes to the menu might be time-consuming; they also thought it could be difficult to fold another cuisine into an already-wide menu. Eventually, after speaking to their late mother 12 years ago, the duo decided to take a chance. “Our mom said we need to introduce our food to the people of the Valley, so we took her advice,” says Zenashe. They now have eight Ethiopian options within their 80-plus item menu.
To sync with breakfast service, Zenashe and Weynitu come into the restaurant early in the morning, before the other cooks arrive, to start preparing Ethiopian stews. To make the doro wat (labeled Ethiopian chicken on the menu), the sisters caramelize onions and with it stir in garlic, ginger, cayenne, and ghee for a minimum of five hours before adding the chicken to cook for another 20 minutes. The sisters’ Ethiopian stews simmer in the morning as their cooks execute breakfast service, flipping pancakes to a mellow golden hue or wrapping griddle-seared breakfast burritos. By lunchtime, the stews are ready to serve.
The Ethiopian menu now anchors a lot of their vegetarian options. There’s a vegetarian platter consisting of shiro wot, a creamy stew made with chickpeas; misir wot, lentil stew boldly flavored with Berbere spices, tikil gomen, a savory dish of sauteed cabbage; key sir alicha a salad of spiced red beets; kik alicha, a milder stew of yellow split peas; and gomen, lightly spiced collard greens that serve as a palate cleanser between bites — all served on top of sour injera, freshly made from teff flour. They also offer two different awaze tibs, one stew made with beef and a vegetarian version made with mushrooms.
To the sisters’ surprise, the Ethiopian menu became quickly popular. Almost half of the customers order from the Ethiopian menu these days, many of whom are newer to the cuisine. “A lot of people have never tried Ethiopian before, but now they are regulars,” Zenashe says. She also thinks the hearty nature of Ethiopian food appealed to the horse riders. The vegetarian-friendly options on the Ethiopian menu and the fact that injera is gluten-free also adds to their appeal.
Sometimes, the cuisines on the menu symbiotically combine: Ranch Side Cafe’s vegan tacos are filled with the same Ethiopian vegetable blend that is part of the vegetarian combo. Fir fir, made with shredded injera and spiced Berbere sauce, is mixed with scrambled eggs and wrapped in tortilla to make an Ethiopian breakfast burrito. Many customers prefer to take food to-go, so most of the Ethiopian stews, from awaze tibs to the vegetarian options, can be wrapped in either injera or a whole wheat tortilla so that the meals become portable.
Ranch Side Cafe has not always been the only restaurant in the San Fernando Valley to serve Ethiopian food. Zenashe remembers that Burbank once had an Ethiopian restaurant that shuttered many years ago, but can’t remember the name. Years later, the now-closed White Horse Cafe in Woodland Hills served Ethiopian food alongside sandwiches and salads.
Ranch Side Cafe does many things at once in part because the Bayous don’t think their restaurant would survive if they only served Ethiopian cuisine. The cafe is the go-to breakfast place for people who come early from all over Southern California to board their horses in the area. Customers often come together in groups, and different folks order from different sections on the menus: some tucking into fragrant stews, others dipping glistening pork sausages into pancake syrup.
The Bayou sisters don’t hold lofty goals for the cafe — just to continue to serve filling, warming foods to customers who come hungry. “Even though it’s a lot of work, it works this way,” Zenashe says.
Ranch Side Cafe is open Mondays from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Tuesday through Sunday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at 11355 Foothill Boulevard, Lake View Terrace, CA 91342.