For the past week or so, I've had the same dish stuck in my head, spinning over and over like a record on repeat. In Ethiopia, it's called bozena shiro — a lush, silky stew made from ground chickpea flour, clarified butter, a laundry list of fragrant spices and tiny pieces of beef simmered until they're all but indistinguishable. It was brought to my attention by Hana Belachew, a waitress at Lalibela, the newest addition to the restaurant-dense strip of Fairfax known as Little Ethiopia. It turns out she would know exactly what to recommend: Her mother is the chef, and with the help of Hana's five sisters (and one brother) who run the front of house, the family is serving some of the most addictively delicious Ethiopian cooking in Los Angeles.
Back to that chickpea stew: It arrives bubbling hot in a small, black cauldron, along with big floppy sheets of injera — the thin, slightly spongy sourdough pancake that you use to sop up the ruddy, brick-red stew. The bozena shiro is deep and earthy, like the booming pluck of a bass string. The injera cuts through with a lemony tang, and you're left wondering how the simple combination of beans and bread can pack such a revelatory amount of pleasure.
If you have spent any amount of time eating in L.A.'s small but robust Little Ethiopia neighborhood — which boasts crisp-skinned trout with lemon at Buna Market and bowls of slick fava bean foul (tricked out to resemble Mexican bean dip) at Meals by Genet — you might be familiar with the cooking of Tenagne Belachew, a matronly grandmother from a small town in northern Ethiopia. She's cooked in the community for more than a decade, at Little Ethiopia stalwarts Rahel and Marathon.
Over the years Belachew has attracted something akin to a cult following among local diners, and when she arrives at your table with a warm smile, brandishing a sizzling platter of derek tibs (butter-sauteed cubes of beef flecked with herbs), you'll understand why her 2-month-old restaurant already has amassed a roomful of regulars at dinnertime.
The prevailing wisdom when it comes to Ethiopian food in Los Angeles is that most restaurants serve a similar menu of mostly vegan, long-simmered stews and a handful of beloved meat dishes like kitfo, a sort of beef tartare with copious amounts of clarified butter and the peppery spice mixture known as berbere.
Generally speaking, the Ethiopian spot you frequented for date night or "meatless Monday" reflected a preference for ambiance more than anything else, whether you were into the slick, modern-bistro look of Meals by Genet or the colorful African artwork and ornate wicker tables at Messob.
At Lalibela, the vibe is pretty subdued — white walls are hung with a few traditionalist paintings, a cozy patio in the back is situated under a shady canopy, and a small marble bar functions more for aesthetics than actual drinking. The air is lightly perfumed with the scent of incense, and a jangly 1970s Ethiopian funk track might come on over the loudspeakers, which is to say that Lalibela feels like a pretty groovy place.
While it's true that Lalibela serves many of the Ethiopian staples common everywhere else, it's the delicate, subtly spiced details that set it apart. There are crispy, house-made sambusas, triangle-shaped pastries filled with lentils and onions and paired with a swipe of bright green jalapeño sauce, and a deeply entrancing version of Ethiopia's national dish, doro wot, a dark, formidable stew fortified with poached chicken and hardboiled eggs; it could easily be mistaken for a soul-stirring variation of Oaxacan mole. There is a lean Somali riff on kitfo, amped up with minced jalapeños, which you can either scoop up with house-made injera or have tucked into a crusty French roll as a sandwich.
Of course, you will most likely end up with one of the menu's platters, which arrive on large, communal plates draped with a layer of injera and then loaded like a painter's palette with little mounds of vegetable dishes. Order the "Veggie Utopia" and you'll encounter a bouquet of tender split peas, chickpea fritters, lentils stained with curry powder, soft potatoes, collard greens, scoops of fresh Ethiopian cottage cheese and whatever else the kitchen has prepared that day — an onslaught of different textures and spices, portioned so that there is enough to tantalize but not overwhelm.
For dessert, the viscous fruit smoothies known as spris are a cure for hot Ethiopian summers, made with avocado, mango and papaya layered like a tie-dye parfait and sweetened with a drizzle of sweet, black currant syrup. Or you could opt for a slice of truly outstanding tiramisu (a holdover from the country's Italian occupation during World War II), which pairs well with a cup of Ethiopian coffee, roasted in-house.
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Lalibela is the type of family-run jewel you might dream about encountering, a place where recipes are passed down through several generations, and the grandmother in the kitchen tends to pots that have been simmering for days at a time. That fantasy might exist solely in our heads most of the time, but occasionally you discover the bona fide version — and in the case of Lalibela, you can expect to be haunted by something as simple as chickpea stew for a long time to come.
LALIBELA ETHIOPIAN RESTAURANT | Two stars | 1025 S. Fairfax Ave., Fairfax | (323) 965-1025 | lalibelala.com | Daily, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. | Street parking | BYOB