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Loukaniko, meet the quesadilla

In the Byzantine Latino Quarter, Greek mainstays with an Ethiopian flair make room for Latin-influenced dishes.

February 25, 2004|Valli Herman | Times Staff Writer

You won't find "awaziki" in any cookbook or food dictionary. You will find it in the deli case at Papa Cristo's, a 56-year-old Greek market, taverna and cultural crossroads at Normandie and Pico in a corner of L.A.'s Pico-Union area known as the Byzantine Latino Quarter.

Awaziki consists of the Greek yogurt and cucumber sauce known as tzatziki, that's been dosed with Ethiopian awaze, a spicy blend of red pepper, ginger, cumin, garlic and dried onion. Like the deli where it was created, it's an example of multicultural culinary invention and L.A.'s ethnic evolution.

Though Greece and Ethiopia aren't exactly neighbors, the cultures share the Eastern Orthodox religion. In L.A. the two communities once worshipped together at St. Sophia's Cathedral, and they still shop and dine at Papa Cristo's, just across Pico.

Long a destination for food lovers who pride themselves on ferreting out the city's authentic specialty shops, Papa Cristo's not only sells dozens of Greek wines, from Retsina to Muscat of Samos, but it even stocks grains for making Ethiopian beer. The taverna serves hard-to-find Greek specialties, and the catering side of the business produced the food featured in the TV series and indie hit "My Big, Fat Greek Wedding." It caters Ethiopian weddings too.

And, in a few weeks, when Papa Cristo's expands with the addition of a Central American market and takeout food center, second-generation owner Chrys S. Chrys will carry his experiments with grass-roots fusion cuisine to new levels. He'll offer feta quesadillas and baklava-inspired tamales, filled with chopped walnuts and honey.

Purists needn't fret that the addition will somehow dilute the popular deli's Greek identity.

The Greek Festival at St. Sophia every August helps to make Papa Cristo's restaurant and grocery a destination for members of the far-flung Greek American community, who head here for the ouzos (a dozen or so, including a few otherwise available only in Greece), roasted leg of lamb, olives, anchovied sardines, Bulgarian acacia honey and boysenberry vinegar made by a Greek monastery upstate. You can buy feta in at least three levels of saltiness, kasseri from Greece. Want a whole roasted lamb for Easter or Passover? Order it here.

"I want to keep tradition," Chrys says of his establishment, founded by his Greek immigrant father, Sam, as C & K Importing, "but I also want to be innovative with it."

For 30 years, Papa Cristo's has been selling specialty food items to Ethiopians, many of whom were St. Sophia congregants. Waitresses from the Fairfax district Ethiopian restaurant Messob buy unroasted coffee beans, while taxi drivers wait for takeout behind women toting Prada bags. In addition to awaze and its incrementally hotter sister spice mixes, berbere and mitmita, each made more fiery with red pepper, there also is ceremonial wine and the round cast-iron griddles used to make injera.

"We're like a mini United Nations in here," says manager Mark Yordan, a 20-year-veteran of the place.

Changes at Papa Cristo's are a reflection of changes in the neighborhood, which was dubbed the Byzantine Latino Quarter (and has the freeway sign to prove it) by a local nonprofit neighborhood improvement group in July 2002. It was an area of Greek American-owned businesses in the 1950s when St. Sophia was a new cathedral and the Ethiopian community, which has since migrated to the Fairfax district, had a presence too. Today, 90% of the area's residents are Latino, the majority of Mexican descent and the remainder from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, says Tony Perez, spokesman for Councilman Ed Reyes, who represents the district.

On any given afternoon, Chrys mans the deli counter or peers through a window in his second-story office to the deli and restaurant below. He holds a phone to his ear while scanning the activity like some white-haired, mustachioed, all-seeing owl. In the dining room, there's a prominent photo of 2-year-old Chrys on the shop's opening day in 1948. He grew up in this space. In 1984 he added the restaurant; six years ago, he added a dining room to increase the seating to 100. All done up in blue and white, with checked tablecloths, silk flowers tucked in wine bottle vases and lots of Greek travel posters, it feels like Athens.

Outside, Papa Cristo's shares the block with El Baron Pupuseria; across Normandie is a busy carniceria. MTA buses periodically unload dozens of passengers in front of Papa Cristo's; the aroma of fresh-baked bread, pungent olives and roasting lamb draws people inside.

A tiny Greek grandma pushes her way to the counter for fresh feta cheese and marides (fried fish) as fashion designer Kellie Delkeskamp (founder of Fever jeans and Grass) picks up some injera, the spongy, slightly sour, flat Ethiopian bread.

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