It used to be that if you wanted Ethiopian food in L.A., you had to fight for parking on Fairfax south of Olympic. It was the only place in the whole city to get the wonderful, spice-laden, complex stews beloved by those who know it. There was a place in Van Nuys, and it turned into a really mediocre Mexican joint, which has since closed.
Then Fassica opened in Culver City, serving legions of hungry Sonyites.
There's Merhaba, in a dingy corner of a forgotten strip mall in a none-too-savoury part of west Anaheim, practically in Stanton (the city that SoCal forgot), which was the only Orange County outpost, and seems to be closed more than it's open (or else there's not a soul in there).
A few weeks ago, as I was driving home from Portillo's, I passed a sign in a strangely familiar script. My Chowdar went off, I popped a U-turn right in the middle of La Palma Avenue, and stopped (earning me the ire of an eastbound OCTA bus driver).
"I think that said 'Ethiopian restaurant'!" I exulted. "You're driving, sweetie," replied Mrs Ubergeek.
And so I did nothing more about it -- forgot to see where it was on La Palma, neglected to record its name, omitted to see whether it was anything more than an old sign that had outlived its business... until tonight.
"I want Ethiopian food," said Mrs Ubergeek. "Let's go see if we can find that place."
And so I headed up the 5, got off at La Palma West -- and couldn't find it. At the Buena Park Mall I stopped, turned around, and crawled back eastward, squinting for the sign, remembering only that it was in a pretty odd and very industrial-looking location. And just when I was about to give up and go see if Merhaba was actually open for once, there it was... Tana Ethiopian Restaurant and Market. In a seedy strip mall, in a vaguely industrial part of west Anaheim, next to a Thai restaurant with the blinds closed, a Filipino bakery and a truly gritty-looking liquor store. There really is something in the theory that the best food in Los Angeles is in horrid suburban-looking strip malls.
Long on decor this place is not -- and it doesn't matter in the slightest. There are some crocheted textiles (napkins?) on the walls, and prints of Ethiopia, and a wall hanging of the 231-letter Amharic alphabet. The lighting is six-foot fluorescent bulbs. I didn't see a market anywhere, not that it especially mattered in this case. The food was well worth it.
Two women, one dressed modestly in whatever the Ethiopian answer to hijab is, the other professionally dressed, were drinking coffee at a front table. A young, well-dressed man was eating alone at another table. The staff looked surprised to see us.
The menu is short -- six meat dishes (mostly tibs), kitfo (raw chopped beef tossed with spiced butter) a vegetarian platter, and shiro (spicy lentils). We ordered a vegetarian platter, and the shiro, after reassuring the lady that we could handle the heat of berbere powder.
In fairly short order -- 15-20 minutes or so -- we were presented with a huge platter of food, and an enormous dish of shiro... except there was already shiro on the platter. It was a veritable mountain of food. Collard greens, three kinds of lentils, cabbage and potato stew, green beans, two kinds of salad with tomatoes and chilies, and fit-fit (injera tossed with tomatoes, niter kebbeh and chilies).
It was fantastic. Standouts were the green beans, cooked with onions until they were very nearly singed -- these were so good that my wife ate green beans willingly for the first time in two decades; the collards had something in them (crumbly cheese?) that made it very savoury. The red lentils in the centre of the platter had a smoky, rich, almost mole-like quality to them that just drove me wild. The shiro was fantastic, but I do wish they had used slightly less niter kebbeh -- the extra clarified butter made the dish hard to eat with the injera, which was good, but I would have preferred it more sour. We gave up trying to give gursha* with the shiro, because it wasn't holding together. It was absolutely delicious, just very hard to eat.
The service was quick and gracious, which has not been my experience in Ethiopian restaurants. Injera was refilled without our asking for it, which meant that the waitress was watching out for us. I asked for coffee, and she asked me what kind. I wanted Ethiopian coffee service, but unfortunately Ubergeeklette was not very happy, so I made do with a regular cup of coffee, which was shockingly strong and very, very hot -- "hot as Hell, black as death, and sweet as love".
The grand total for the whole meal was $18.25 plus tax and tip -- $10 for the vegetarian platter, $7 for the shiro, and $1.25 for my cup of coffee.
As we talked with our hostess, she said they'd been open for four months and had been OK, but not especially busy. I promised that we would be back, because, let's face it, it was GOOD Ethiopian food, and it was a mere ten minutes from home, rather than an hour plus and a parking nightmare to go to Fairfax.
They are open Tuesday to Sunday and closed Monday. Hours are 11 AM to 9 PM Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday, and 11 AM to 10 PM Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Those of you down here in the 714 (or the 562 or the 949) should go and eat here. If it's your first time eating Ethiopian, you'll be blown away by the flavours; if you're not a novice, you can ask the kitchen to make what you're missing (including things like lamb alitcha).
* Giving gursha is the Ethiopian practice of feeding a loved one at the table. You tear off a bit of injera, scoop up some stew, and place it gently in your loved one's mouth, taking care not to put your fingers actually IN the mouth, since you need to continue eating with it. It slows down the eating process and makes the dinner an occasion.
Tana Ethiopian Restaurant and Market
2622 W La Palma Ave, Anaheim, CA 92801