It can be intimidating, at first, to try Ethiopian food if you're used to, say, fried chicken, pastrami sandwiches and pizza. There seem to be unspoken rules—food must be scooped up with injera (a spongy flatbread), utensils are shunned and drinking coffee is a revered ritual. In Little Ethiopia, L.A.'s epicenter of traditional Ethiopian food, a stretch of Fairfax between Whitworth Drive and Olympic Boulevard is home to a smattering of Ethiopian restaurants and markets, each one serving massive rounds of injera topped with scoops of collard greens, chickpea purée, stewed chicken and more. Friends congregate for Ethiopian coffee and porridge in the morning, and live music can be heard from select restaurants as the sun goes down at night. Looking to transport yourself for an afternoon? Head to Fairfax for some rib-sticking Ethiopian food at these outstanding restaurants.
L.A.'s best Ethiopian food
Located just off the main Little Ethiopia strip, Awash is a small eatery with an unassuming exterior. Step inside, though, and you'll be rewarded with some of the best Ethiopian food in L.A. Awash specializes in tibbs, or chunks of marinated meat (primarily beef) that are accented by a hefty amount of spices and Ethiopian butter. In addition to chicken and fish, there are also a few vegetarian combos that include lentils, split peas, greens and a salad, along with the requisite injera. Service can be slow at times—so arriving when you're borderline hangry might not be a good idea—but the waitstaff is friendly and accommodating.
Buna is a small restaurant located in the back of a market, and opens early enough that you can sit down for a leisurely coffee and a piece of their revered tiramisu for breakfast. If you're not here in the morning, though, you're here for the whole rainbow trout, a specialty at Buna that is oven baked and arrives with four vegetarian sides. Once your meal is finished, scope out the market for some homemade berbere spice mix, teas and cantuccini—an almond biscotti snack.
As one of Little Ethiopia's recent newcomers, Lalibela opens earlier than most of its counterparts on the block, offering breakfast on Thursday through Sunday well before the standard 11am. Stop by for Genfo, a wheat porridge with Ethiopian-spiced butter, or Enqulal Fir-Fir—scrambled eggs topped with sliced jalapeno. The sage-scented restaurant also makes some killer lunch and dinner items: Sambusas stuffed with lentils, grilled onion, jalapenos and herb fillings; Somali Kitfo, which is finely chopped and seasoned beef; and Ajebush, a house special that combines a variety of meat and veggie dishes along with Ethiopian cottage cheese. Bonus? Lalibela is BYOB with zero corkage fee.
In the heart of LA’s Ethiopian community, locals pop in and out of shops and restaurants, catching up on gossip. At Little Ethiopia Restaurant, breakfast is an afternoon affair, perfect for the late-riser or the ambitious traveler who’s already made an early-morning visit to nearby LACMA. Once Little Ethiopia opens its doors, head in for a hearty bowl of fool (a spiced bean and vegetable stew) or a platter of quanta firfir (dried beef sautéed with pieces of injera). Lunch and dinner items include combination platters (both vegetarian and meat focused), along with sambusas, soups, protein entrees and sides. The Ethiopian coffee ritual rivals the Japanese tea ceremony in complexity and tradition—you can opt for a simple, well-brewed cup here or you can cross the street to Messob for the full ceremony.
In the movie City of Gold, Genet Agonafer credits LA Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold for saving her restaurant's post-9/11 slump. But the Goldster isn't the only thing keeping this Little Ethiopia restaurant afloat—it's Agonafer's outstanding cooking that make repeat customers out of first-timers. At the inviting restaurant on Fairfax, a plate of Doro Wot inspires diners to furiously scoop up spicy chicken in stewed red peppers, or tofu tibs sauteed in onions and green chiles. For those with a gluten allergy, gluten-free injera is available for $4 a piece. Order an Ethiopian beer or honey wine to wash it all down.
On the back of Merkato's menu—underneath the drink section—reads a helpful prompt: "If you think you're drunk, we'll call you a taxi." Thanks, Merkato! Perhaps it's all that sweet honey wine that Merkato offers. The restaurant and market is a colorful space, with umbrellas dangling from the ceiling and beautiful tablecloths decorating the tables. A handful of breakfast dishes grace the menu, but you won't be disappointed by the lunch or dinner entrees. We're a fan of the Asa Tibbs—whole fried trout served with vegetarian side dishes (and, of course, injera). A Yemisir Sambusa—pastry stuffed with lentils—is a delight to share with your dining (and drinking) partner at the beginning of the meal.
Step into this homey Ethiopian restaurant, where your dining experience includes spicy stews eaten with your hands and a traditional coffee ceremony. As a part of Little Ethioia since the mid-'80s, Messob is rife with vegan options—a combination platter might include Yater Alitcha (steamed peas), Yatakilt Alitcha (steamed vegetables), Yemisir Wot (split lentils) and collard greens. For those looking for a meat option, Messob has a great Yebeg Siga Alicha—lamb stew with garlic, ginger and assorted spices, served with injera. A traditional tea ceremony—meant for at least two people—is also offered here.
Rahel's is Little Ethiopia's sole vegan restaurant. Owner Rahel Woldmedhin was the original founder of nearby Messob before opening her vegan eatery, which eschews imitation meat and instead focuses on vegetable-rich stews accompanied by injera. In addition to Yemisir Kik Wot (split lentil stew), Yeshiro Alicha (mild chick pea stew) and Yedinch Wot (potatoes stew), there's a nice selection of combination dishes that bring diners' favorite sides together. The best way to end the meal is with Rahel's vegan cheese cake—and perhaps a special Ethiopian juice, like telba (made from flax seed) or besso (made from barley).