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Injera Time

June 29, 1995|JONATHAN GOLD

As long as anyone can remember, the short stretch of Fairfax Avenue south of Olympic has been a center of ethnic restaurants. For decades, the block was an Eastern European stronghold; later it became a locus of the Sunday-night Chinese-restaurant scene, before that moved west to the southern border of Beverly Hills.

A few years ago, South Fairfax coalesced into something like the Ethiopian equivalent of Mulberry Street in Manhattan or Greektown in Detroit, an enclave where an Ethiopian could buy vegetables and dinnerware, get her hair done and stop for a cup of Ethiopian coffee--but also a tourist-friendly strip lined with restaurants which all essentially serve the same things. On Fairfax, the sweet musk of cardamom, smoldering incense and roasting coffee overpower even the high burnt-meat stench of the local Carl's Jr.

Nyala, I think, is pretty much the hip restaurant on the strip, with Ethiopian bands on weekends and a low-key vibe John Shaft would have recognized. Blue Nile may be the family restaurant; Rosalind's the one where ex-Peace Corps workers might feel at home. Messob seems like the Ethiopian version of a checked-tablecloth Italian joint, a homey, dim-lit mom 'n' pop restaurant with signed celebrity photos and sketches of Haile Selassie on the walls, and a steady green glow from the neon signs in the window.

On half the tables sit bottles of exotically tart Ngok' beer, which used to be imported from the Congo in big, thick bottles but is now, a waiter tells me, brewed in Torrance. Stacks of freshly made injera , the sour, floppy bread that is the basis of Ethiopian cuisine, are plastic-wrapped for takeout in the back of the restaurant. Dim Ethiopian polyrhythms pulse on the stereo, the kind of music you'd imagine lava lamps would probably make if you found a way to run them through a PA.

If you've ever eaten at an Ethiopian restaurant, you pretty much know the drill. A stew called wet' (sometimes spelled wat' or wot' ) will be simmered in a fiery, multi-spiced sauce colored brick-red with dried chiles; a mild stew identified by the word alich'a will at some time or another be fried with wilted onions. T'ibs is a sort of soulful stir-fry.

Fitfit is a stew tossed with pieces of injera , served on top of more injera (like all other Ethiopian dishes), and customarily eaten (like all other Ethiopian dishes) using still more injera as a spoon, making the whole thing a fairly injera -intensive proposition. (The tomato fitfit , a bitingly tart injera -based condiment, is terrific.) Everything is seasoned with one or two of the holy trinity of Ethiopian cooking--spiced butter, hot dried chile paste and a sort of hot fresh chile paste--and almost everything has high notes of garlic, ginger and cardamom.

Kitfo , which is as close as Ethiopia comes to a national dish, is usually referred to as a version of steak tartare. It's finely minced raw beef tossed off the flame with quarts of melted, spiced butter. Kitfo can be overcooked and gritty here unless you specify that you want it rare. Try rare gored gored instead, which is essentially the same dish made with larger strips of meat. The subtle gaminess of raw beef acts as just another top note in the complexly spiced, sharply cardamom-scented stew: spectacular.

Most people order one or another of the combination plates--giant, metal platters lined with injera and mosaicked so intricately with little varicolored heaps of t'ibs and lentils that it almost seems as if you should be able to make out Lincoln's face among the mounds of spiced collard greens, split peas, freshly made curd cheese. Like the No. 2 dinner at a Mexican restaurant, a Messob combination is undemanding, tasty and fun.

Don't miss the special Ethiopian coffee here, roasted to order in a lidded pan, brewed and poured into little cups from a ceramic Ethiopian coffee pitcher that is brought to the table on a tray that also includes a fuming coal of incense. I used to like the coffee at the late Bagel Delicatessen across the street, but Messob's Ethiopian cup is really an improvement.

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What to Get

Recommended dishes: gored gored , yebeg siga alich'a , "vegetarian's delight" combination, Ethiopian coffee.

Where to Go

Messob, 1041 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 938-8827. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Beer and wine. Mastercard and Visa accepted. Street parking. Dinner for two, food only, $15-$25.

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