Messob Ethiopian Restaurant
1041 South Fairfax Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90019
When I was in Berkeley, I used to pass this Ethiopian restaurant on Telegraph Avenue all the time because it was, quite literally, around the corner from my apartment. It was so long ago, I can hardly remember the name. It was something like Blue Nile and it was a buffet. This was at a time when all the news all over the media was about starvation and famine in Ethiopia. An Ethiopian buffet, huh? They give you a plate and you just walk around with it empty? Sorry, that was a totally insensitive and horrible joke, but it sort of explains my first impression of and subsequent feelings about Ethiopian restaurants – never quite made it onto my “must try eventually” list.
Even after I moved to L.A., where there is an entire strip of Fairfax Avenue dedicated to this country halfway down and on the Eastern-most side of Africa, it never crossed my mind.
I’ve even seen Little Ethiopia many times – the bright red, green and yellow all over the signs and storefronts – but it’s always been through the rolled up window of my car, cursing as I’m crawling at a snail’s pace up Fairfax, because for some reason, that little stretch is very very slow traffic. I always ask, what the phock is holding up traffic?!?! but have yet to get an answer.
But a little more than a month ago I made it to an Ethiopian restaurant for the first time, but it wasn’t even in L.A.’s Little Ethiopia. It was brand new Fassica on Washington Boulevard, right here within walking distance of my office in Culver City. It took me over ten years to get there, but I made it, and what can I say? My first time, and I was swept off my feet.
But, I have this problem of being very easily swept off my feet, of falling passionately in love at the drop of a dollar, of being so easily seduced. Two bars of a song, and I’m screaming at the top of my lungs in the club, “I love this song!” Two bites of injera soaked with the juices of doro wot and I’m singing its praises all over the internet. Can there really be love at first taste? Am I that easily impressed? Do I really have that indiscrimate of a palate? I had to see, so I resolved to go to Little Ethiopia to benchmark myself.
We had a handful of recommendations for restaurants, all of which claimed to be "the best" or "most authentic" Ethiopian in L.A.: Meals by Genet, Merkato, Messob, Nyala, and Rosalind’s. We were going to go guerilla-style and walk along Fairfax until something just attacked our sensibilities. We walked up one side, and not so oddly enough, everything looks, smells, feels the same, so we were sort of at a loss. Then, on our return path down the opposite side of the street, I saw the one. It had a Korean newspaper’s review in the window. Korean! We decided to eat at Messob because my peeps gave props to their peeps.
(As a side note, I am always fascinated by how the stragest, smallest things induce us to validate something. Like in a split second, we can make a connection. I need to read that book Blink.
When we walked into Messob, it was almost 8:00, and I had to worry a bit, because a restaurant that is virtually empty at prime time is a bad sign. Was it also a bad sign that the three other tables were, for lack of a better word, gringoes? When I get Mexican food, I feel better when I see Mexican people eating there. When I get Japanese food, I feel better when I hear (can’t say “see” because I can’t tell Asians apart – lol!) Japanese people there. When I get Ethiopian food, I think I’d feel better if there were Ethiopians there.
But again, I am so culturally ignorant (not stupid and insensitive, just not educated, yet). I guess Ethiopian people must eat later, because as our own meal progressed, Messob gradually filled up with people,and by the time we left, it was full, with people waiting up front for tables. And there were quite a few Ethiopian people, including a tiny little girl prancing up and down the restaurant on her parent’s cell phone. I am only guessing they are Ethiopian though, as they were conversing in another language with the servers and staff, and many of them had those enormous round eyes and gorgeous giant foreheads. I am particularly fond of large foreheads. Though you can’t see from my very mysterious picture, mine is not just a fourhead, but a fivehead, as my friends used to call it.
Messob, like all the other restaurants that we passed, looks very Ethiopian, whatever that means. The space is small, long, and narrow. Along each wall, there are regular “Western” tables with glass topped white tablecloths and chairs, but right down the center, there’s a row of large structures that looked to me like enormous basket-woven hookahs, but without the alien tentacle tubes. When we asked what they were, the hostess lifted up the cone-shaped lid and showed us that it was a small table. Did we want to sit there? It looked like it would be cramped and somewhat uncomfortable trying to eat sitting in a regular sized chair from a table that was the same size and height of a nightstand.
We sat down against the wall as usual, with me in the seat that would make my papparazziacal moments least conspicuous. But Messob has almost no overhead lighting, relying on rapidly waning daylight filtering through a fairly small font window and the reflections of small spotlights off of glassed and framed headshots of famous people who have paid visits to the restaurant (almost none of who I recognize). So my flashbulb fantasy was going to be pretty obvious. I just had to remember to speak with a fake accent and this Asian girl in an Ethiopian restaurant is going to look like a tourist.
Messob has a small wine list, but we really wanted to get as fully immersed into the experience as we could, so we ordered the Ethiopian honey wine. It was a deeply golden yellow, a mysterious brew that came to the table in a beaker that looked like it had come straight from an exotic chemistry lab. Syrupy sweet, and if it were in any other context, I wouldn’t have been able to drink it, but here in Little Ethiopia, it was just right, especially as we reviewed the menu.
It took us a long time to review the menu and decide on what to order for dinner. We *chuckle chuckle* at the suggestion on the first page to “Try gursha,” the technique of hand feeding your dinner companion by placing chunks of food into the mouth. It’s supposed to play up the exotic and sensual compenents of eating, but for some reason, “placing chunks” didn’t sound all that appetizing, and it certainly didn’t sound the least bit sensal. “Chunks.”
The menu has a separate section for vegetarian, but to make it easier, we decided on a combination platter that would allow for a good sampling of everything that Ethiopian food has to offer. This is what I had enjoyed before at Fassica, and would give me a good way to do the comp.
The platter of food was enormous, with all the requisite Ethiopian things in tiny piles creating a colorful patchwork quilt atop injera. Many of the items look as though they will have quite a bit of heat because they’re red, but though they are fragrant and aromatic from the berbere and other spices, they aren’t necessarily hot.
An entire basket of rolled and folded injera accompanied the platter. This is only the second time I’ve ever seen injera, the crepe-like bread from Ethiopia. The grayish-brown color, spongy texture, hundreds of tiny airy holes, and the simulatenously subtle nutty and sour taste of it still very new and strange. We were ready to dig in, but waited for utensils. Then we realized that the injera in the basket were our utensils. Duh. I suppose if we had asked for forks, they would have brought them for us. But when in Rome, uh, eat pasta with a fork, and when in Little Ethiopia, eat with your hands.
Eating pizza with your hands is normal. Eating fried chicken with your fingers isn’t hard. Even eating barbecued ribs is slightly messy, but do-able. Eating Ethiopian food, which is mostly braised stews and sautees of ingredients that are cut fairly small, with hands, though, is not a dainty task at all. I had sauce under my nails, I’m sure I had gotten globules of it on my face, I dripped it all over the (thankfully) glass-topped table, I licked my fingers every once in while after my napkin no longer had a clean spot left on it. Everything was so delicious and I was eating such relish, I almost felt like I was stuffing my face like a total barbarian. I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere in there I had even *grunt*ed or *oink*ed once or twice as I plowed through my section of the platter. Or maybe even three times. Note to self: Never suggest Ethiopian food for a first date. See also: “Try gursha” above.
Lots of words for the food items on the menu are repeated, so they are becoming familiar to me now. By comparing desciptions on the menu, fit-fit seems to refer to dishes tossed with pieces of injera. Tomato fit-fit comes with all the dishes as a common side, as does a plain green house salad. Both were part of the combination we ordered, and were the least interesting things on the platter. in fact, I don’t think I really liked the tomato fit-fit at all because it was cold. Collard greens are like pizza for me. Unless they’re rotten to begin with and cooked in gasoline, they’ll always taste good to me.
Wot is a common term that refers to braising like a stew, and I am going to guess, a certain combination of red peppers and spices. There was doro wot, chicken pieces with bones-in so the meat stays tender, siga wot, made with strips of beef, and yemisir wot, made with split lentils. All of the wots were rich and deep with flavor, and of the wots, I liked the yemisir the best.
Zelzel tibs, beef sauteed with onions and other spices, was good, and easier to eat with hands than the wots, but tasted a bit dry after having stewed meats. Kitfo is also beef, but ground and sauteed with spices. This one I liked because it actually had the most heat out of everything.
Alitcha is another word that appears a few times, and I am going to guess that it refers to cooking with onions, garlic, ginger, and a different combination of spices from the “wot.” Yebeg siga alitcha is lamb, which I didn’t love, but I suspect it’s all psychological. If I didn’t read beforehand that it was lamb, I wouldn’t have known it as lamb, especially with all the spices, so it probably would have tasted better to me. Funny how the brain works, isn’t it? Yater alitcha was another type of lentil, and yatakilt alitcha were vegetables – carrots, potatoes, and I think cabbage, though I can’t say for sure. Faintly sweet, likely from the natural sugars in carrots and cabbage. When I go back for Ethiopian, I don’t need to order a combination. I could eat an entire plate of yatakilt alitcha by itself. With injera, of course.
Somewhere through the course of our dinner, I got wind of some sort of noxious fumes in the air that brought on the faintest feeling of nausea. It was incense, but not a scent that was familiar to me. I think they either put it out after I kept turning my head and not so subtly sniffing the air with what I’m sure was an irritated look on my face; or maybe I got used to it. I do remember mentioning that I felt sort of high after a while. Was it the wine? Was it the “incense?” I have no idea.
At Fassica, spaghetti on the menu seemed a little odd, but later I learned that it is evidence of the Italian occupation of Ethiopia some time ago. This time, it is the baklava for dessert that seems somewhat out of place. I am sure there is another history lesson that I will learn later. It was good, not great, and lost some its tender flakiness because they had gone slightly overboard with the honey.
I had to wonder if the Fassica and Messob are somehow related. Fassica is owned by Seble Asfaw, and Messob’s owner’s name on their business card is also Asfaw. Is Asfaw a common Ethiopian last name and I’m just totally ignorant thinking all Asfaws are related? Is that like someone asking you if you’re related to John because you’re both Korean and both of your last names are Lee? Or maybe I really am a sleuth and they are related! I don’t know. In fact, I guess I don’t really care, but I thought it was interesting how stupid I can be sometimes.
As we walked out of Messob quite happily stuffed, we noticed again the Korean paper taped into the window. Though I couldn’t understand the words (yes, yes, it kills my parents, too), I am going to be so bold as to say that I’m sure it was a glowing "lee-byoo." I thought about how glad I was that our experience was good, because I had shown myself that I hadn’t been wrong about Ethiopian food. There is such a thing as love at first taste. :)