Waking Up to a Taste of Home
A breakfast crawl through Los Angeles’ Little Ethiopia.
There is no mistaking when I enter Los Angeles’ Little Ethiopia. Tucked away in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood on the Westside, the main drag on Fairfax Avenue comes alive with the cheery colors of the country’s flag — red, yellow and green. On this cool May morning, I’m immediately struck by the scents of pungent frankincense, fiery berbere spice and strong Arabica coffee wending their way out of the cafés lining the strip.
Though I love eating sunny side up eggs, crispy rashers of bacon and hash browns, there are more ways to start the day than this traditional trio. So I’ve made my way here for a breakfast crawl, intent on sampling all the Ethiopian dishes that celebrate daybreak.
First up is Buna Ethiopian Market, which opens every morning at 9:30. Walking in, I find the shelves at the front of the slender space packed with dry goods — red and green lentils, split peas and a house-made berbere mix — as well as imported CDs and DVDs and traditional handicrafts.
A small dining area at the back abuts the open kitchen, where owners Eyob Tadesse and his wife, Helina Zerfu, have been working their magic since opening the eatery in 2011. Though the café’s whole menu is available all day, I decide it’s only proper to begin with a bowl of made-from-scratch ful. Based on a family recipe, the dish arrives topped with sour cream and diced white onions, green peppers and tomatoes, alongside plenty of warm French bread for sopping. At first I try to keep all the ingredients separate and carefully compose each bite, but after a few spoonfuls, I just mix everything together and enjoy it as a delicious mash.
Super strong Ethiopian espresso is on hand for those in need of caffeination, so I quickly knock back a cup; my eyes immediately feel wider, and my pulse happily quickens. Tadesse tells me customers go crazy for the tiramisu — a throwback to Italy’s brief annexation of Ethiopia during World War II — but I decline; I need to save stomach space for the rest of my journey.
Just a couple of doors down sits Merkato Ethiopian Restaurant & Market, which opened over a quarter century ago and begins welcoming diners at 11 a.m. daily. The air here is thick with incense mixed with scintillating scents wafting out of the small kitchen in the rear. The store sells plenty of familiar ready-to-eat favorites — freshly made injera, including a gluten-free option, and bags of chin chin — as well as a host of pantry staples.
A small bar aligns the back of the store, while the other side of the space is devoted to a more formal dining room. Faded lights in the shape of Malibu bottles hang on the bar alongside pictures of owner Dawit Belay at the restaurant with Snoop Dogg, Stevie Wonder and U2’s Bono, proving that big stars love this little spot. I take a stool amid the regulars and order a traditional coffee service to begin my second breakfast. After the beans are roasted over hot coals in the kitchen, they’re brought out so I can take in their aroma before brewing. When the jebena arrives, I fill my cup and add plenty of sugar to its dark depths. Since there’s more than even a hardened java junkie can handle, I offer some to one of my seatmates, who graciously walks me through the menu as we’re sipping.
One of the best offerings, he says, is the kita firfir. And he doesn’t lead me astray — the dish is delightful. Choppy bits of pan-baked wheat bread are tossed in chili powder–spiced butter, creating a tantalizing mix of crunchy, smooth and soft textures. Another option he recommends is the kitfo breakfast sandwich, with mitmita-spiced meat cooked to desired doneness and then presented simply on a French roll. I make a note to come back and try it another day, because one final stop awaits me.
Little Ethiopia Restaurant opens at 11 a.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, welcoming guests with a bright sun across the storefront that reflects its staff’s warm disposition. The quanta firfir here wins my heart. Cured bits of beef nestled amid bits of injera are fried together with a chili-onion sauce that’s spicy without overwhelming the other components. There’s also ful on the menu, a deeply flavorful fava bean mash served over injera, which I use to eat up every last morsel.
By the time I leave, I’m pleasantly full and a smile arcs across my face. It’s nearly noon, so most people along the strip are weighing what and where to eat. I, however, must vow to return another time, when I have the belly bandwidth to find out what all Little Ethiopia has to offer for lunch.