Illustration by Sarajo Freiden
Saturday night at Rosalind’s on Fairfax Avenue is sumptuous. It’s not just hip, gritty, nicely circumstantial (that Saturday afternoon that slouches into evening and finds you and a friend still wearing minimal makeup, shopping gear and a movie calendar folded on the back seat — what the hell?), even a lean cut of romantic — but sumptuous. Rosalind’s is exactly that because, for several hours every weekend, it soaks up all the color and nuance of a very Ethiopian block like a great piece of spongy injera, Ethiopia’s national bread.
The scene starts about 8 and peaks ’round midnight. It begins with serious dining: Waitresses pass by my table balancing hubcap-size platters of Ethiopian cuisine; honey wine flows; post-coffee incense burns. But what I came to sample most tonight is eskista, not a dish but a delectable Ethiopian dance whose chief ingredients are swaying heads and shoulders so sharply spasmodic they look as if they’re being touched with an electric cattle prod. I have seen a little of eskista on videos and am curious to witness it in the flesh, to study any possible transcontinental links to Soul Train, breakdancing, ’80s Michael Jackson.
As the hour grows later, the food service slows to a trickle; drinks keep coming while the population at Rosalind’s swells to nightclub proportions. Ethiopians across the spectrum of the country’s roughly 70 ethnic groups file in: men in business suits talking rapidly in Amharic, Ethiopia’s national language; kids barely out of their teens in Tommy Hilfiger and baggy denim; women in velvet gowns and neck scarves and occasionally in the traditional Ethiopian dress made of heavy crinkled cotton and trimmed in bright brocade. The band starts up, and the eskista is on. To Ethiopian tunes flavored with pop beats and reggae and a wee bit of funk, the capacity crowd ducks and bounces and shimmies with gleeful abandon — all from the waist up (rump shakers who think they pay full homage to the motherland, take note). Women face off and dance with each other, swapping grins; one older man throws his hands up in the band’s direction and dances alone. People let go some hollers that loosely translate into "Party over heah!" It’s all very scintillating and socially egalitarian, which I didn’t expect, and a great way to burn off all the injera, which I never manage to do because I am too busy watching and surreptitiously trying to work my shoulders to that eskista pop, eating to the beat, thinking that none of the Jacksons — Michael, Janet, self-esteem doyen Jesse, who so solemnly championed the tortured phrase African-American — have got anything on this.
The block of Fairfax Avenue between Olympic and Whitworth has been distinctly Ethiopian for about 12 years now; as ethnic enclaves go, it is still relatively new, and still growing. I discovered it through a good friend who moved to L.A. from New Jersey and immediately started hunting for Ethio-pian food, her favorite. As often happens with out-of-town friends, she introduced me to a place that had been flourishing right under my nose — well, right outside my car window, which means that if the pope had been standing on Fairfax giving away holy cards, I would have driven right by him on my way to the 10 freeway. All Angelenos know the transmutative power of walking, of getting out of the car and taking half an hour or so to see what’s what. First I did Rosalind’s, then, as the scene grew, the Blue Nile, Chibo, Nyala. A few of these places, the Nile and Chibo, closed over the years but were speedily replaced by more Ethiopian businesses and restaurants.
Rosalind’s owner, Fekere Gebre-Mariam, 46, says the block weathered its toughest times in the early to mid-’90s, when the statewide recession and local riots one-two punched many a small business in metropolitan L.A. Profits plummeted 40 percent in that time, but things are looking up considerably; in the last year alone, three new places have debuted: Abyssinia restaurant, Ledeta Market and Safari gift-and-goods shop.
Gebre-Mariam was the first to locate here and has been called the mayor of Little Addis, or simply the godfather, a notion that makes him laugh heartily, but also one that, at bottom, he seems to take seriously. He studied international relations in college and once dreamed of becoming, in his words, the African Kissinger, though ending up as Fairfax’s street-level diplomat and cultural ambassador suits him fine. "I’ve never considered leaving [Fairfax], even when things were pretty bad," he says one afternoon at Rosalind’s, seated in a booth covered by an Ethiopian thatched roof known as gojo. "There is a very strong community here that needs a place like this." He should know; he has been in the USA since 1971, and as immigrants like him dig into L.A. and the years put more and more distance between them and their homeland, places like Fairfax become more and more significant. "I visit [Ethiopia] now and then, but that’s it," he says, flashing the perfect diplomat’s smile that is his trademark.
In the ’80s, Gebre-Mariam was the engine driving a simple business concept of creating a concentration of like restaurants in a small area, making that area a must-stop for consumers of all things Ethiopian. The south end of Fairfax seemed like a good locale — freeway-close, modest rents, a street known for its ethnic hubs (Jewish and Chinese). Once Gebre-Mariam moved his restaurant from nearby La Cienega to Fairfax in 1988, others followed suit, and soon Fairfax sprouted Messob, Merkato, Nyala, Blue Nile, Chibo, Marathon Café.
The idea was a natural. Starting in the late ’70s, Ethiopian immigration to America intensified as people sought to escape the oppressive Mengistu regime, which set the stage for later civil wars. Many settled in Washington, D.C., and here, making livings as cab drivers, parking-lot attendants or small-business entrepreneurs. Several Coptic Christian and Protestant churches catering to Ethiopians have sprung up in the vicinity of Fairfax’s restaurant row. With Fairfax, Gebre-Mariam and others were attempting to replicate 18th Street in D.C., a thriving Ethiopian enclave several blocks long located in that city’s Adams-Morgan district. The biggest customer base of Fairfax is, of course, the roughly 35,000 Ethiopians living in sprawling Southern California, who need not only a regular fix of home — injera, wine, eskista — but a regular meeting-up place.
Fairfax is, for now, smaller than 18th Street, but it’s bountiful. Though the menus at all the restaurants are essentially the same, food and climate vary from place to place. Injera is the heart of the meal. Not merely bread, in the absence of silverware it functions as the utensil for picking up and delivering the food to your mouth. Everything on Abyssinia’s menu is distinctly light, with a particularly wonderful shiro, a chickpea polenta cooked in tomato and spices; everybody has the heavenly honey wine, a smooth little piece of manna for those of us who never really cultivated a taste for alcohol because we couldn’t get past the feeling that the stuff was too bitter to ever taste good. Believe me, honey wine is your man. As to climate: Rosalind’s has a timeworn, family feel; Nyala has ocher-sponged walls and a California-moderne look; Abyssinia is spare and hip, with background music that tends to eschew traditional Ethiopian songs and videos for Oprah and fusion jazz. Marathon Café offers sandwiches and spaghetti alongside the Ethiopian fare, a nod to the Italian influence wrought by Mussolini’s brief occupation of the country in the ’30s and ’40s, as well as the enduring Italian influence in neighborhing Eritrea. On most afternoons you can also find a group of players — typically men — in Marathon’s backroom shooting carambola, sort of an Italian version of billiards.
Perhaps more than any other place on the block, Messob is a crossroads of the familiar and the familiar in busy redefinition, a cheery clash of Old World and New. The place is bright and full of gojos and messobs, traditional Ethiopian dining tables fashioned from drums and covered with goatskin; the walls are lined with framed 8-by-10-inch photos of owner Rahel Woldmedhin posed alongside various celebrities — Lindsay Wagner, Danny Glover — a staple of any successful L.A. restaurant, from hot-dog stands on up. Woldmedhin herself is a mix of renowned Ethiopian civility and down-home Southern hospitality — warm and chatty, moving easily about the restaurant and among customers as she would among guests in her own living room. On our first meeting, she invites me to her wedding ("What, you’ve never been to an Ethiopian wedding?" she asks me, incredulous. "You must come!"). She goes to West Angeles Church of God in Christ on Crenshaw, one of the biggest black churches in the city, and she also attends Coptic services. "I go everywhere," she says with a smile and a shrug. "I have to cultivate business."
Sitting in the front semiprivate booth, I have a wonderful sampler meal that includes spicy yedoro wot (chicken), beef and lamb tibs and a colorful variety of vegetable dishes that even a spinach-hater like me, armed with enough injera bread to cover a sofa, can more than tolerate. Afterward, Woldmedhin presides over my first Ethiopian coffee ceremony, which is roughly analogous to a Japanese tea ceremony. A waitress brings out fragrant unroasted beans for my approval; the beans are taken in the back, roasted, returned for further approval, then ground and brewed into espresso (surprisingly smooth) that is brought to the table accompanied by burning incense sticks and garnished with a sprig of a mintlike herb called rute. Now in a properly ruminative state, I follow Woldmedhin into an adjacent room that is a small-scale banquet hall; hung above a makeshift shrine is a portrait of Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s last emperor and Rasta god, who died in 1975. On another wall is an enormous painting that depicts Addis Ababa University, and a memorial erected to the more than 150,000 Ethiopians who died fighting off the Italian invasion — the first black army in history, Woldmedhin says proudly, to defeat a European army. She offers this room free of charge to Ethiopians for special events — baptisms, wedding receptions and the like. "This is here for them," she says with a sweep of her arm. "When it comes to religion and culture, Ethiopians stick together. What is there in life besides that?"
Nothing, I conclude, and mull over the distressing fact that black Americans (we’ll avoid the term African-Americans for clarity’s sake here — sorry, Jesse) have not seen a Fairfax Avenue in the city since the long-gone days of segregation, when South L.A.’s Central Avenue fostered the growth not merely of restaurants, but of culture — jazz, blues, backroom billiards. That was our immigrant time. Wholly absorbed into the great American creed of rampant individualism, we have not seen fit since 1950 to come back together and grow an economy, even a tiny one; I can’t imagine a cadre of soul-food merchants deciding to set up shop together on, say, King Boulevard, for the benefit of black folks.
But there are at least some parallels between the two communities to note —Merkato, next door to Rosalind’s, is the Ethiopian answer to the Boulevard Café on King, a neighborhood, groove-worn place where the same folks day after day come to eat, but chiefly to talk and watch the world pass by on the pavement. It’s easy to spend all day there — besides the restaurant, there’s a coffee bar, a store with a wide range of goods that includes packaged injera, spices, music, videos and Ethiopian history books. There’s even a Web site. "This is the only place I come on Fairfax," declares manager Alemayehu Tafesework, a cabby for 14 years before being hired full time at Merkato last month. "This is where I come when I get tired of speaking English."
Wiry and raspy-voiced, full of a restless energy that barely allows him to stand still, Tafesework could be a Mafioso with a heart of gold, the passionate underling to Gebre-Mariam’s smooth operator. He steers me through Merkato with giddy pride, getting downright patriotic as he points out the saddlelike seats, called coursi, arranged around the messob tables. ("That’s Ethiopia, man!") He credits Merkato, and Fairfax, with bolstering him spiritually through the years, and for building from the ground up a hothouse in the middle of L.A.’s vast civic desert where Ethiopian culture can flourish. Tafesework’s future is here, on a very nouvelle American block. "I feel like this is my little town here," he says. "I want to own a business one day, and I want to own it on Fairfax. I’ve moved to Philly, to Las Vegas. But one was too hot, and the other was too cold, you know? I love L.A." Sure thing. To each his own eskista.
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FAIRFAX RESTAURANTS AND MARKETS
Abyssinia, 1053 S. Fairfax Ave., (323) 933-0930; Marathon Café, 1043 S. Fairfax Ave., (323) 938-4243; Merkato, 1036 ½ S. Fairfax Ave., (323) 935-1775; Messob, 1041 S. Fairfax Ave., (323) 938-8827; Nyala, 1076 S. Fairfax Ave., (323) 936-5918; Rosalind’s, 1044 S. Fairfax Ave., (323) 936-2486.