ETHIOPIAN -- compare and contrast
There are a lot of rec's for Ethiopian places on this board, but most of them are just people saying which place is their favorite; there's relatively little information about the actual, objective differences between the places that would help somebody decide which one to try. I'll get things started with the two I've been to; I'd love to read others.
Merkato has a definite hole-in-the-wall feel to it. Granted, most Ethiopian places in LA are holes in the wall, but Merkato seems to be going for an out-in-the-bush theme. The ceiling is decorated to look like a burlap tent, the attached store is chaotic and a little dusty, and about half the tables are mesobs. (The other half are covered in plastic veneer, and lack tablecloths.) One table seems to be reserved for the waitress as a staging ground. The food is heavily spiced and a little zippy, but not overbearingly hot, and the odor of that wonderful smoky-fiery-spicy berbere pepper permeates the air and the food. It's also fairly rich, though they claim to use no butter, only vegetable oil. The injera is plentiful and wonderfully sour. Prices are cheap: meat dishes are around $9 or so, the vegetable platter (more than I can eat, and I'm a big eater) is $7, and appetizers are a buck or two.
Rahel is a little more upscale: they have tablecloths, and the decor tends to black and white portraits on the walls and umbrellas hanging upside down from the ceiling -- no burlap here. (They have mesobs as well.) The spices are much more subtle here than at Merkato, and you taste much more of the fresh flavor of the vegetables. Nothing that I ate was more than mildly spicy (though perhaps different dishes may have more of a zing to them), and the vegetables had a light, healthy taste. (I think they use less oil than Merkato.) Rahel is more expensive than Merkato, with vegetable dishes priced at around $10-13. They also have an all-you-can-eat lunch special (5 different dishes) for $8.
It sounds like Messob is somewhere in the middle. They've got the theme decorations going, but they're not out of control. The food is probably about the same price as Rahel, maybe a touch cheaper. And the spicing on the food tends to be a bit stronger than Rahel, which I like.
Meals by Genet is more upscale -- white linen tablecloths and napkins -- which fits because half the menu (the better half) is Ethiopian and half the menu is Cal-Italian specialities. Candles, no messobs -- these add up to higher prices, but the service is much better than the other places on Ethiopian Row.
Nyala is a lot like Merkato (and Rosalind's) but less out-in-the-bush. You get an amuse of a hummus-like dip with flatbread (NOT injera) when you sit down. Service at Nyala is particularly indolent, though oddly it's better when they're busy than when they're not. The food is quite good but you have to convince them to put some fire in the wots. Nyala has the best coffee service on Fairfax.
Fassica is across from Sony Studios on Washington and Motor. There's absolutely no decor at all. Service is actually fairly quick, but they don't (as far as I remember) offer the coffee service. The reason to go to Fassica is because you live on the Westside and can't deal with traffic on Olympic or Pico to get to Little Ethiopia.
Merhaba, on Ball Road in Anaheim, is the "dirtiest" place. It's not unclean, but it's run-down and much-abused. Soccer is perpetually playing fairly loudly on the television. You will, I guarantee it, be the only non-Africans in the place. They will be surprised to see you. Service is casual in the extreme, but this is the cheapest Ethiopian in the city (they say it's Eritrean, so the language is Tigrinya rather than Amharic -- this will confuse you if you're used to ordering doro wot and yemiser alitcha, because they aren't called than in Tigrinya).
Tana, on La Palma Avenue in Anaheim, is the best OC choice. The decor is, again, nearly non-existent, with half the kitchen in the restaurant, but the service is gracious -- it is slow mostly because they're not typically very busy and the food is made to order. They are generous -- we have received the coffee service for free when they were not very busy and there were four of us -- and the food is actually quite cheap, much moreso than Fairfax.
Rahel. For me, always Rahel. She presents food with subtle nuances, whilst other places blow away your taste buds with head. No complexity with that! Rahel has a few zingy dishes, but she cooks for quality and flavor, not heat. Also, Rahel herself will often come out and pile more of somehting on your platter! Plus, her injera is the best and she makeskiller sambussas and besso!
Messob is my Non Rahel option.
I find Nyala just too dull and unflavored. Genet doesn't feel "Really Ethiopian" to me. Food is good, but it's high end, and just doesn't ring my bell. I can't quite bring myself to pay that much for wot or alicha. really bad injera, too.
Rosalinde's is sort of the "applebee's" of Fairfax. You get what you expect.
Me, I find Merkato over salted, slow, and sloppy.
Want to throw in a plug for Industry Cafe and Jazz, which is close to Culver City if you don't want to snake your way up Fairfax to Rahel or Messob. They are very friendly, have live music around 8PM most nights and a flat screen TV at the bar. It has a bit more of a western feel to it.
My kids love Ethiopian food and this place is why -- it's probably a bit gringo-ized, as the food is milder than at Messob (except for the red lentils, which I find quite spicy, but we're all spice wimps). They also serve some Italian and American dishes: their spaghetti was good, and the fried chicken was OK too. Beer and wine.
They don't have air conditioning, so it was literally hell to eat there during the heat wave of early September this year.
Industry Cafe and Jazz
6039 Washington Boulevard (a few blocks west of La Cienega)
I've been pretty disappointed by the LA Ethiopian I've tried,including Rahel's. I still hold out hope that Meals by Genet will reverse the trend...