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A Los Angeles Primer: Little Ethiopia

"Hey, I didn't know that they had food in Ethiopia. This will be a quick meal. I'll order two empty plates and we can leave." This particularly well-known line from "When Harry Met Sally" touches on both the conceptual novelty of Ethiopian restaurants as well as the country itself having become a byword for modern African woe. But that movie came out in 1989, before Los Angeles' Little Ethiopia had even made a name for itself; surely American eating habits would have come around since then, raising the then-little-known cuisine if not to the omnipresence of Chinese, then at least to the stolid reliability of Thai. Yet when a 2011 episode of "The Simpsons" took the titular family to a neighborhood very much like Little Ethiopia, their meal still surprised them, albeit favorably. In the words of the high-minded, high-achieving Lisa Simpson, "Exotic. Vegetarian. I can mention it in a college essay." As satire goes, this has an edge on the groaner about empty plates, which even in this century I've heard Angelenos deliver as their own. Then again, they say the old jokes are best.

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Not long after "When Harry Met Sally," in the mid-nineties, Little Ethiopia did make a name for itself, albeit informally, as "Little Addis." This early appellation referenced the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, which Pico Iyer, in his essay from that era "Prayers in the Wilderness," described as "a sleepy, eerie, rather bedraggled town -- less tranquil than torpid, and less a town, indeed, than a collection of grand monuments set against shacks and vacant lots and open ditches. [ ... ] Addis -- like much of Ethiopia -- has the air of an exiled prince, long accustomed to grandeur and full of pride, but fallen now on very hard times." Little Ethiopia hasn't had long to get accustomed to grandeur and, like many of Los Angeles' specifically ethnic zones, didn't have much grandeur to work with in the first place. A count from those days found a total of four Ethiopian eateries on the neighborhood's single city block. The density of available Ethiopian experiences, culinary and otherwise, has since increased, though aside from a well-respected outlier or two, they've still spread no farther than Fairfax Avenue between Olympic and Whitworth: true to its current name, Little Ethiopia may grow more Ethiopian, but little it remains.

This location on the south of Fairfax once got the area branded as "SoFax." Banners emblazoned with that odd compound still hang from the block's streetlamps, despite the official designation as Little Ethiopia coming through in 2004. This brought those official blue signs with the neighborhood name and the Los Angeles emblem, although I can't help but notice that some of them say "Carthay Circle." Such a conflict tempts one to fall back on the Angeleno's standard coping mechanism for geographical cognitive dissonance: finding yourself in whichever neighborhood you want to find yourself in. Little Ethiopia's entrepreneurs have done exactly this, opening such businesses as "Carthy [sic] Square Market" and "Falasha Beverly Hills." Behind their doors, you find Ethiopian garments, Ethiopian music and movies, Ethiopian coffee (as you'd expect, given that the country provided the beverage its very cradle), Ethiopian spices, Ethiopian food, and Ethiopian incense, the scent of which puts me into Pavlovian anticipation of a wide plate of spongy injera bread and raw beef kitfo.

And do order the kitfo. Economist and well-known food enthusiast Tyler Cowen recommends it as the single dish by which you can determine whether an Ethiopian restaurant merits more of your time and money. If they serve it to you cooked, take your business elsewhere, not that Little Ethiopia's most respected establishments -- a surprising number of which have operated for over twenty years, and a few for around thirty -- would commit such a grave faux pas. Even if you haven't done your research, you can spot these places, none of whom hesitate to post laudatory clippings in their front windows. Ethiopian food remains an evergreen topic of discussion for not just professional restaurant critics ("Belly of Los Angeles" Jonathan Gold established himself early as a fan), but also food bloggers and other, more specialized species of the internet's determined eaters -- the very subculture that "Simpsons" episode lampoons. As rich a nexus of cultural pursuits as dining offers, those who plod programmatically from meal to meal, phone-photographing dishes as compulsively as they assess their real or imagined points of inauthenticity, do make themselves easy targets.

But we may laugh because they show us a frightening tendency within us all: an eager curiosity to engage with all the peoples of the world that goes no deeper than paying for their food. Any world-city resident runs the risk of reduction to a cultural tourist, especially when passing through a neighborhood like Little Ethiopia, which presents itself primarily as a collection of restaurants. This holds true for any number of Los Angeles' enclaves, from Little Tokyo to Koreatown to Chinatown to Little Armenia. But how to transcend the surface, especially such a delicious one? You can't really move into Little Ethiopia, unless you buy one of its restaurants and live in it, which I doubt even their actual owners do. You could burn the incense at home, you could add a few Ethiopian DVDs to your library, and you could add a netela or two to your wardrobe, but I cant imagine that you'll feel you've solved the problem -- or, for that matter, that you'll feel non-ridiculous. No wonder some of us simply take refuge in the seriousness of our eating.

I find I can distract myself from such anxiety-inducing questions by learning a little bit of the language, studiousness being perhaps our time's most underrated opiate. While I have yet to throw myself into the study of Ethiopia's Amharic language, I have spent quite a few minutes on several separate occasions scrutinizing a poster displaying its alphabet at one of Little Ethiopia's markets. This striking script looks especially attractive on some of the restaurant signs, and the neighborhood's past as a part of the Jewish Fairfax district has left remnants of Hebrew, Amharic's fellow Semitic language. From an aesthetic standpoint, they complement each other, though I run the risk of committing another kind of cultural slight in saying so. If you don't feel guilty in Los Angeles about reducing a whole foreign country to a set of flavors, you feel guilty about reducing it to a set of design elements. Beats cracking starvation jokes, I suppose.

Photos by Colin Marshall.

About the Author

Colin Marshall hosts and produces the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. These columns present essays adapted from his book-in-progress, "A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City."
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