Little Ethiopia seems the littlest of all L.A.’s “littles”: Its main drag of shops and eateries embraces just a single block of South Fairfax Avenue, between Olympic Boulevard and Whitworth Drive in the Carthay district. But it forms the condensed, visible storefront for a sizable Ethiopian diaspora spread across the city. Its identity is so embroidered with detail that a single evening here can be a transporting cultural escape — and provides the kind of vacation from L.A. in L.A. that I can’t live without.
Little Ethiopia’s young enough — America’s first major wave of Ethiopian émigrés arrived during the 1970s’ “Red Terror” repression by the Marxist military junta in Addis Ababa — that its old-country echoes remain clear and articulate: Flavors, decor and fashions are apparently sufficiently close to Ethiopia itself to satiate the displaced. Ethnically distinct businesses — the Jah Lambs and Lions Rastafarian music shop, where reggae CDs share space with gaudy leisure suits and T-shirt images of Haile Selassie, Bob Marley and Che Guevara; the Merkato restaurant and gift store, with its imported wine, incense, and self-aware Little Ethiopia post cards and shirts; Messob restaurant, where diners enjoy elaborate combination plates on stunted woven tables — hold atmospheric sway over the could-be-anywhere 7-Eleven, Carl’s Jr., Union Pawn Shop, and incongruous array of Day-Glo “portrait cakes” at the Regal Cake Gallery
L.A.’s Ethiopian community is mostly made of political exiles, so there’s much discussion here of affairs back home: Tables of conversation-embroiled East Africans lend even the generic Starbucks an exotic air. Listening in to lamenting tales of war without end and political discourse trumped by violence puts angst about traffic on the 405 and Brad versus Jen into embarrassing perspective.