1044 S Fairfax Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90019
Whether it’s a single thoroughfare or a complete multi-square mileage neighborhood, Little Ethnic City/Country-towns are an easy way to travel and explore, without every having to deal with the hassle of a passport, expense of plane tickets, or in my case, the side effects of Xanax.
Just about every major metropolitan area has a Chinatown. If there’s a Chinatown, the there’s likely a fairly respectable Japantown (or Little Tokyo). On the coasts, Koreatowns are also growing. For those of us who live in LA, we also have access to neighborhoods that go beyond the major Asian invasions. Vietnamese? Sure, it’s called Little Saigon in Garden Grove. Thai food? Elvis swerves his Blue Suede Shoes in Thai Town in Hollywood.
You could do a whole tour of Asia, which is no surprise for Los Angeles, but there are some cultures that you might not have even known were represented. These may not even be official neighborhoods – a city block or two, a short stretch of an avenue, or even just a strip mall wholly dedicated to one ethnic cuisine.
Westwood Boulevard from Wilshire on the north end to Olympic on the south end is the mini-heart of a body of Persian restaurants and stores called Tehrangeles. The area between Westlake and Echo Park is an unofficial Little Manila. If you seek out Zankou’s notoriously garlicky chicken, you’ll end up in Little Armenia in Hollywood. There’s even a tiny concentration of Russian restaurants along a small stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. What about Jewish food? Sure, there are delis scattered all over the greater Metropolitan area, but if you want to go to one area to do all your Kosher eating, head for Pico Boulevard near Robertson. Indian food? Well, there’s Pioneer Boulevard in Artesia, which is technically in Orange County, but if you drive slowly up and down Venice Boulevard in West LA, there’s a buffet of South Asian restaurants that also includes Pakistani and Nepalese.
And what if your inner Angelina is pushing you toward Africa? That is multi-leg, multi-carrier, multi-day travel that will also require several bacteria-fighting cocktails taken by injection. Thankfully, you can just drive to Little Ethiopia, a stretch of Fairfax Avenue between Olympic and Pico. Of course, that technically 20-minute, actually 45-minute, drive through LA rush hour might not be any less of a nail-biting, hair-raising, nerve-wracking, fist-pumping, blood pressure skyrocketing ordeal than a 24+ hour trans-Atlantic flight to Addis Ababa.
I am still new to Ethiopian cuisine, with my very first foray only a year or so ago at Fassica in Culver City, and a more recent dinner at Messob. It seems I am making way along the selection of restaurants along Fairfax at a reasonable pace with my third venture with Rosalind’s.
While gursha, the practice of feeding one another with your hands, certainly makes for a romantic evening for two, the best way to experience Ethiopian food is with a group. Friends make it more fun to dive into platters of food that is served family-style, but let’s be real here. Taking friends is not free of self-interest. Having more people means there are more opprtunities to order a variety of things. We went, six of us. Oh, the possibilities.
Rosalind’s exterior is fairly non-descript save for the neon sign in typical red, yellow, and green. However, the restaurant’s interior screams Ethiopia. Narrow columns colorfully painted with geometric designs and African flora and fauna hold up thatched roofs that jut out over a small backbar and tables against the walls. Doorways between rooms are arched and painted over, windows are dressed with red, green and yellow fabrics, walls are covered with prints, African artwork, and travel posters for Ethiopia, and if natural wood-like chairs weren’t enough to suggest “Africa,” a second dining room is filled with the traditional Ethiopian tables that look like enormous straw baskets that have been tightly cinched in the middle. Even if you had never read the sign out front, Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
My friends and I shimmied ourselves into a booth, a tight-semi-circle facing the dining room. As is always the case when confronted with an entire cuisine that is still fairly new, I needed a drink to overcome the intimidation. We ordered a bottle of tej for the table to lubricate the menu negotiations. Tej is an Ethiopian honey wine that is sweeter and stickier than any dessert wine I’ve ever had. In a different setting, I would have shuddered at something so sweet before a meal, but when in Rome, well, do as the Romans do, and when at Rosalind’s, drink tej.
We started with a couple of appetizers, which I had not seen on menus at the two other Ethiopian restaurants I visited. Sambussa is a triangle-shaped pastry filled with lentils, and if I d
idn’t know any better, would have thought they were the same thing as Indian samosas. Somewhere in history, back when we were all happily living on Pangaea, India and Ethiopia must have shared the same kitchen.
Clearly, Africa is the origin of a lot of inter-continental cuisine. An appetizer plate with shrimp and a couple of vegetable fritters was served with pilli pilli as a dipping sauce. Pilli pilli is made from hot peppers, and with the power of Interweb intelligence, I am deducing that pilli pilli refers to the tiny African birdseye chili also known as piri piri and peli peli. Piri piri is, of course, a Portuguese hot pepper sauce that Bameril Lagasse loves to push. I was wrong, however, of the direction, because the peppers came to Africa by way of Portugal from the New World. So there’s the culinary history lesson of the day.
The main portion of the meal was immediately preceded by a salad with an Italian accent. I found it oddly charming the first time I saw spaghetti on Fassica’s menu, thinking that the restaurant was offering it as an alternative for any non-adventurous type who had been roped into joining a group going for Ethiopian food. I didn’t know that the small Italian influece on Ethiopian cuisine was the remnant of Mussolini’s 5-year occupation of the country. Wow, who knew you could learn so much about geo-political history through food?
There were several different “combination” orders, but Rosalind’s put them together around the perimeter of large platters lined with injera, an Ethiopian flatbread made from a grain called teff. Injera is grayish-beige in color and has a texture that can only be described as a sponge-like cashmere pancake. The teff is fermented before being made into injera, which explains the bread’s characteristic sour taste. In Ethiopian cuisine, there are no eating utensils. Instead, injera is used to pick up the various items by hand. I am not sure what they do for spaghetti, though.
The larger platter had the vegetables: collard greens, vegetable alicha, red lentils, and split peas, and a smaller platter had meats. I know I am still a novice in Ethiopian cuisine because the only thing on the meat platter that I could recognize and remember by name was the yedoro (“doro”) wot, a thick, rich chicken stew with a hardboiled egg as a centerpiece. I am sure there was lamb (probably yebeg siga alicha) and beef on there somewhere, but I’ll just blame my ignorance on the tej.
The food was good enough to garner a return visit, but unfortunately, Rosalind’s service was sorely disappointing. Perhaps I had been spoiled by Seble’s warm, nurturing and wholly dedicated attention at Fassica. Perhaps I don’t have a clear understanding of the cuisine’s traditions. Whatever the reason, the service felt slow, with uncomfortably long gaps between courses, confused, disinterested, and at some points, slightly hostile. We didn’t notice much, but we did notice.
I may go back to Rosalind's, but not before I've tried a few more. I’m beginning to think that all of the Ethiopian restaurants along Fairfax have the same menu, and it’s only the paper on which it is printed that differs. The setting and service are what will distinguish a diamond amongst broken glass, and I’m happy to hunt on a safari that takes me as far east as Fairfax. I’ve got two down. Six to go:
** a year ago today, i went korean kah-pae style at home with kimchee dooboo (tofu) **